(East Lansing) The Michigan State Spartans and the Penn State Nittany Lions are both entering Wednesday nights contest on three-game skids so something is going to give.
MSU (9-7 overall, 1-3 Big Ten) and Penn State (5-9, 0-3) have both been affected by tough schedules to begin the Big Ten season. The Spartans are coming off three straight road games and the Nittany Lions will be playing their third road game in four games.
So based on the two teams road woes, it seems MSU would have the advantage. Not so fast.
MSU head coach Tom Izzo said he doesnt want his team to think playing at home is an automatic win. Rather he wants him team to concentrate on an improving Penn State squad.
"Its a team with two great guards in Watkins and Chambliss, and as we know great guards can really help you, and when guards are struggling it really hurts you," Izzo said.
"They have two guards that can move the ball and shoot the ball and have played extremely well."
Sharif Chambliss and Brandon Watkins are both 6-foot-1 guards and are both top 15 scorers in the conference.
Chambliss is averaging 14.8 points per game and is the best free throw shooter in the Big Ten, hitting 92.7 percent from the charity stripe. Chambliss is also a threat from the three-point line, where he has connected on 43 3s this season.
Watkins is averaging 14.6 ppg and leads the team with 53 assists. The duo are the heart and soul of the team, but lately its been their big men who have stepped up.
After three Big Ten games, the Nittany Lions are leading the Big Ten in rebounding margin. Penn State is outrebounding its opponents by five rebounds per game and thats even more impressive considering in their first six games of the season they were outrebounded by more than nine boards per game. MSU is second with a +4.3 rebound margin.
Whats even more surprising is that the teams leading rebounder in conference play is a walk-on freshman.
6-foot-9 forward Aaron Johnson has been a menace under the glass. Johnson is averaging 8 rebounds per game, with more than half coming on the offensive side of the court.
Johnson suffered an injury and high school and was not highly recruited. Penn State head coach Jerry Dunn visited a practice and told Johnson he could walk-on for a spot on the team. Since then he has never looked back.
Johnson played his best game of the season against the Boilermakers, finishing with his first double-double a 20 point, 12 rebound effort.
Dunn himself knew the kid had potential, but is pleasantly surprised by what he has saw this far.
"I thought that one, he had a Big Ten body and I thought there were times when I did watch, given a couple years he might be able to be an effective player for us," Dunn said.
"Sometimes that comes sooner than later. And obviously no one, including myself, thought it would happen as soon as it did."
Besides Johnson, forwards Jan Jagla and Robert Summers have also picked up their games. The 7-foot Jagla is fifth-best rebounder in the league, averaging 7.3 rpg and the 6-foot-11 Summers is pulling down 4.4 rpg.
The Achilles heel for the Nittany Lions has been the turnovers, much like the Spartans. In fact the two teams are at the bottom of the conference in turnovers.
MSU averages 16.1 turnovers a game and Penn State averages 16.8 turnovers per game.
With both teams giving the ball up regularly, there should be a lot of opportunities for both teams to get fast-break points.
This is what Penn State will need if it wants to compete with the Spartans. The Nittany Lions have the worst team field goal percentage at 42.3 percent and that doesnt bode well against the conferences top field goal percentage defense.
The Spartans have tightened up their defense and are allowing their opponents to shoot just 40 percent from the field.
However on the offensive end, the Spartans have struggled. In all 16 games this season the Spartans are shooting 45.3 percent from the field. But in four Big Ten games they are shooting just 36.5 percent.
Despite the fact that both schools have not gotten off to great starts, both coaches have respect for one another and they both know what it takes for a team to be competitive in the Big Ten.
"Im not going to make them off to be the Lakers, but Im gonna tell you that, if we dont play well we wont win this game either," Izzo said. "I mean we have to play well in this league, you have to play well. Weve played well in spurts, but not well long enough to get the job done."
Dunn said the Spartans record is a bit deceiving and said this team is not far off from the previous Big Ten championship teams.
"I think theyre a youthful team," Dunn said. "I think they obviously dont have a natural point guard in the lineup right now, but I certainly think its like anything else, you know Tom Izzo is the same coach he was when he went to the Final Four and won it."
"Your personnel changes and sometimes it takes a little longer to get guys to buy into what youre doing and then after they buy into they get to the point where theyre really playing the want you want them to as a coach. So its a matter of time for them."
This is the 21st meeting between the two schools. MSU leads the series 17-3 and is 11-0 in East Lansing.
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