Penn State turns to its perennial punching bag in its search to win its first conference game.
The Penn State football team isn't playing a bowl game on this New Year's Day, but the basketball team will be in action when it faces Northwestern on the road in Evanston at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Both teams dropped their conference openers this past week. The Wildcats fell 87-54 against Ohio State on Wednesday in Columbus while Penn State was defeated 71-53 by Michigan in Ann Arbor on Thursday. Now, both teams will be looking to even their Big Ten records and keep themselves out of an early 0-2 hole in Big Ten play.
Northwestern is otherwise off to a nice 10-3 start, with wins against LSU and Seton Hall already in the back pocket. If they're going to continue to make a push for the NCAA Tournament, however, the Wildcats will likely have to beat Penn State at least once, something it was unable to do last season, falling in both games against the Lions.
Below are some things to watch for in the matchup.
When Penn State has the ball...
-Guard Jermaine Marshall had a tough start against Michigan, fouling four times and spending a lot of time on the bench before finally scoring nine late points after the game was already out of reach. It'll be a big boost for Penn State if Marshall, the team's second leading scorer, can bounce back and get involved in the offense earlier this time.
-Billy Oliver also had a tough start to his Big Ten season, scoring just three points on 1-3 shooting. He'll be looking to come back strong as well.
-Tim Frazier had a productive 20 points, four rebounds and four assists against Michigan, but he also had five turnovers. Several of those were cases of the team's leading scorer simply trying to do too much. Watch to see if he can do a better job of taking care of the ball and getting his teammates involved against the Wildcats.
When Northwestern has the ball...
-John Shurna (18.8 points per game) and Drew Crawford (17.7 points per game) are both very dangerous scorers for Northwestern. Both shoot greater than 40% from 3-point territory and both rebound well, too, averaging five boards per game. They're capable of being a two-man wrecking crew, especially if Penn State isn't careful with them on the perimeter.
-For the second game in a row, Penn State enters with a significant rebounding edge. The Lions are ranked No. 89 nationally in rebounds per game at 37.1 while the Wildcats enter ranked No. 296 at 31.7. Penn State was unable to make a similar edge against Michigan stand up, falling 32-28 on the boards, so Sunday's game will offer further clues as to whether Penn State is actually a good rebounding team in this conference, or simply a product of a weak non-conference schedule.
Northwestern is a good team, and this game won't be the gimme on the road that it has been in recent years. Winning the battle of the boards will be crucial as, once again, it's the one clear edge Penn State has on paper. If the Lions can do it, they'll have a solid chance to pull out a victory. If they don't, it'll be another long night in a distant arena. This is Northwestern, however, a team Penn State has owned in recent years, even when it has struggled. If there's a team it's proven it can get over the top against in the past, it's this one, and there's no reason to think that will change until it finally happens. Pick: Penn State, 68-65.