For a team of which little is expected, Penn State's relatively easy 3-0 start with comfortable wins against Hartford, Radford and Long Island has offered fans a source of cautious optimism in these trying times on campus. The intensity kicks up a notch for the Nittany Lions on Saturday, however, as they take on No. 2-ranked Kentucky in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament at Uncasville, Connecticut's Mohegan Sun Arena looking to measure themselves against one of the nation's best. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.com.
Given Penn State's relative inexperience and Kentucky's seemingly overwhelming skill and athleticism, it's hard to see the Lions making a game of this for 40 minutes. That said, as the team prepares for the meat of its non-conference schedule with games against Boston College, Mississippi and Duquesne in the not-so-distant future, this matchup should give coach Pat Chambers a good idea of where the team stands and where it has to improve to finish the intersectional slate strong.
Here are some things to watch for.
When Penn State has the ball...
-Pushing the tempo has worked well for Penn State in the first few games of the season, and Chambers has said he likes to keep the game at a pace that best suits point guard Tim Frazier's speed and quickness. Forcing a track meet with Kentucky, however, a team with athletes as dangerous as Frazier at every position, probably isn't a great idea. Look for Chambers' offense to take its foot off the gas in transition a bit in this one.
-For Penn State to have any chance, it needs to work the ball inside more than it has early in the season. Heaving up 25+ 3-pointers per game, as the Lions have in their past couple of games, isn't a big deal against the offensively challenged teams Penn State has played to this point. Against a team like Kentucky that will score its share of points, however, the Lions need to make the absolute most of every possession, and that means finding better shots than some of the contested triples they've chucked up against Radford and Long Island.
-The Lions' secondary scorers must establish themselves early, or the Wildcats will collapse on Tim Frazier and squeeze the life out of Penn State's offense. Billy Oliver, Cammeron Woodyard and upstart Trey Lewis will all be tasked with forcing Kentucky to respect their offensive games to keep the floor clear for Frazier to do some real damage.
When Kentucky has the ball
-With five Wildcat scorers averaging double figures on the young season, it's hard to say the Lions can key on any one player defensively and hope to have success. For that reason, transition defense will be key. Any and all of the players on Kentucky's roster are dangerous, so a solid team effort will be requited to slow the 'cats down.
-While talented, Kentucky is very young and could be prone to some mental lapses. Penn State has made the most of opponents' mistakes to this point, forcing a large volume of turnovers in the early going, so creating extra opportunities would be a real plus for the Lions in this one.
-The other side of the "extra opportunities" coin says the Lions cannot give a team as talented as Kentucky bonus chances at scoring. Defensive rebounding is vital in keeping the Wildcats' to the absolute minimum number of scoring chances.
As mentioned before, those hoping for an upset here will probably be pretty disappointed. Kentucky is just too good and Penn State simply too young an inexperienced to expect anything more than a comfortable Wildcats win. There are a lot of ways the Lions could use a game like this to build on for the rest of the season, however, so expect the players to give it their all to see just where they stand at this early point in the season.