Based on the season Minnesota (15-3, 3-2) should be the favorite against Penn State (10-7, 2-2) but when you look at the game a little closer a lot is working against the Gophers.
First off the Gophers were thoroughly beaten by Michigan State on Wednesday, which is a team that Penn State beat by nine last weekend. Also, Penn State is 7-3 at home this year with the losses coming to Albany in the opener, and against Northwestern and George Mason.
Richard Pitino said today that the team has much to fix if they want to beat Penn State. Pitino pointed out that the team had just six assists and need to pass the ball more. Pitino also his team must do more with the pass, less with the bounce. They also need do a better job of defending on the perimeter to help protect Reggie Lynch who continues to follow out.
The Gophers are looking to match their best start in Big Ten play through six games since the 2008-09 season, when they also began the season 4-2. At the same time, Minnesota is looking to snap its three-game losing streak against the Nittany Lions, the longest in the series history.
The Lions are a balanced team with five players averaging in double figures and three of those players are freshmen. Penn State has done a great job recruiting Philadelphia and that is represented by that freshman group with 6-foot-3 guard Tony Carr scoring 11.5 points a game, 6-foot-7 forward Lamar Stevens scoring 12.7 a contest, and 6-foot-9 250 pound Mike Watkins putting up ten points and 8.5 boards a game.
Juniors Payton Banks and Shep Garner are also having solid years. Shep Gerner is scoring 12.8 a game shooting nearly 36 percent at the arc (118 of his 186 shots have come at the arc) plus creating three assists a contest. Payton Banks is scoring a dozen points a game shooting 40.5 percent from the arc (114 of his 163 shots have come at the arc).
Minnesota fans have been arguing that Akeem Springs needs more minutes. He’s played 17 minutes in four of the last five contests. In those games he shot 6 of 19 and scored 19 points. In the one game he played over 17 minutes (27) Akeem put up 18 points.
The Nate Mason shooting struggle is leading to percentages that look like the Nate Mason of the past. After his 30/10 game against Purdue, Nate shot 6 of 31 in the next three games before finishing the game making four of four attempts. Mason shot 41 percent from the floor as a frosh, 39 percent last year, and is at 40 percent this season. He’s at 40.3 percent from the arc this year which is an excellent total up from 30.2 percent last season.
The Gophers need Jordan Murphy to start scoring a bit more. His last three games Jordan has shot 8 of 24 from the floor and scored 21 points. That needs to improve. Next to him Eric Curry also needs to take some steps. As a frontcourt player Curry is barely above 40 percent from the field for the year (35 of 87) and he’s made just two of his last dozen attempts.
If Minnesota is going to end this three game losing streak to Penn State it will start up front. Jordan Murphy needs to give the team more offensive, Eric Curry has to simply finish more up front, and they need the Reggie Lynch that played in the three wins and not the Reggie Lynch that barely played because of foul trouble in two losses to Michigan State.
Mike Watkins and his near 250 pounds will see Lynch first and Minnesota needs to get the ball down to Lynch early like they did in the previous contest versus Michigan State, they just need better results. Since Watkins isn’t Nick Ward the Gophers should get a better performance from Lynch.
Amir Coffey and Lamar Stevens will be under the microscope because of their similar career starts. Both Coffey and Stevens are the biggest recruits their respective programs have brought to campus in recent years. They are also long and versatile forwards having excellent senior seasons.
At point guard Nate Mason and Shep Garner are familiar with one another having faced each other for the past couple years. Garner is coming off one of the biggest wins of his career having helped the Lions beat Penn State. Mason needed confidence after three tough shooting games and it may have come with those four makes in a row to lose the last game.
Minnesota fans were all witness to a team that lost a game in a tough way when Michigan State rebounded from the PSU loss by trouncing the Gophers. Can Minnesota do the same tomorrow? They are expected to play better and they should win based on what we’ve seen so far this year. That said Murphy, Lynch, Springs, and Mason have all had some tough recent games. The motivation should be there.
Minnesota 74 Penn State 67