Minnesota Opens Big Ten Play With Penn State

Minnesota opens their Big Ten schedule against 8-4 Penn State Tuesday. Both schools are similar positions as they likely need at least a 10-8 mark in conference play. The Nittany Lions have three losses by three or less points, but losses to Tulane, North Carolina-Wilmington, Virginia Tech and Temple are not likely to overwhelm the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

GETTING INSIDE Through its first 12 games, Penn State did many of the things a team needs to do to win consistently, in the Big Ten or any major conference.

The Nittany Lions took care of the basketball (they averaged 10.9 turnovers per game), played mostly solid man-to-man defense (opponents shot 40.1 percent from the field against Penn State) and took care of business at the free-throw line (their percentage of .736 ranks second in the Big Ten).

But winning teams also find different ways to score and do so with consistency, which is what the Nittany Lions didn't often do during the season's first two months and what threatens to make the conference season a struggle.

Penn State enters Big Ten play with a team field-goal percentage of .434 and a team 3-point percentage of .339. Other than junior guard Talor Battle, who leads the team with 18.8 points per game and has gone over 30 twice this season (he's shooting only 42.8 percent), no Nittany Lion averages in double figures.

The Nittany Lions have shown the ability to generate points in transition but haven't gotten enough steals or quick outlet passes to do so consistently, and the halfcourt offense, even with the playmaking talents of Battle and freshman point guard Tim Frazier, has been flat. Penn State has also displayed a troubling trend of making mistakes at crucial moments late in close games and has had a difficult time of keeping some of the better big men it has faced off the offensive glass.

The Big Ten is as tough and balanced this season as it has been in any of Ed DeChellis' first six seasons at Penn State. The Nittany Lions, who will need to at least repeat their 10-8 conference record from a year ago to have any chance at an NCAA Tournament berth, must find a second scorer to support Battle and find more ways to generate scoring in the halfcourt game.


--Freshman forward Bill Edwards, who missed Penn State's first four games with a sprained knee, is beginning to look sharper on both ends of the floor as he regains his conditioning. Edwards averaged 12.5 points and four rebounds in the Nittany Lions' last two games, hitting seven of his 11 field goal attempts and six of his nine 3-point tries. Edwards is one of the few Nittany Lions with the ability to create his own shot and Penn State will need continued production from him off the bench.

--Junior guard Talor Battle, who played an astounding 1,422 minutes in 38 games last season, continues to log heavy minutes. Battle leads Penn State with 421 minutes played (35.1 per game). He's also hoisted twice as many field-goal attempts (173) as any of his teammates and twice as many free-throw attempts (70) as everyone but fellow guard Tim Frazier.

Penn State has plenty of players -- Talor Battle, Chris Babb, Bill Edwards, even Tim Frazier -- who are capable of stringing together several 3-point makes in a row. But they're just as capable of missing several in a row, which means the Nittany Lions must not become too reliant on the long ball as they enter Big Ten play. Forwards Andrew Jones, David Jackson and Jeff Brooks, who are three of the team's most experienced players, have all been disappointing this season in terms of offensive production and will be called upon to balance out the perimeter scoring, particularly in what should be grinding games against Wisconsin (Jan. 3) and Illinois (Jan. 12).
"We're trying to build some confidence in some of these younger kids. We threw them into the fire earlier in the season and I'm not sure they were ready for that." -- Penn State coach Ed DeChellis.
Last year, Talor Battle constructed his own personal highlight reel late in games. His buzzer-beating layup led Penn State to a huge win over Illinois, and his buzzer-beating 3-pointer tied the Nittany Lions' first-round NIT game with George Mason, the first of six straight victories that gave Penn State the championship. This season, Battle has had two chances to pull a game out of a fire -- but he couldn't get off a last shot in a three-point loss at Temple and his game-tying layup attempt against Virginia Tech came up just short. So has it gone for the Nittany Lions, who have battled themselves as much as the opposition and are still looking for a complete team performance.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F David Jackson, F Jeff Brooks, F Andrew Jones, G Talor Battle, G Tim Frazier. Key Subs -- F Bill Edwards, G Chris Babb, F Andrew Ott, F Sasa Borovnjak.
GAME REVIEW: Virginia Tech 66, Penn State 64
Penn State 104, Gardner-Webb 57
Penn State 76, American 57

GAME PREVIEW: At Minnesota, Tuesday, Dec. 29
Vs. Wisconsin, Sunday, Jan. 3
Vs. Michigan, Thursday, Jan. 7
At Illinois, Tuesday, Jan. 12
At Iowa, Saturday, Jan. 16

Penn State's first Big Ten game could be one of its most important. The Nittany Lions want to establish momentum in the league after suffering close losses in its two biggest non-conference games (Temple and Virginia Tech), and improved but incomplete Minnesota, which is bigger, deeper and more athletic than Penn State, should be a good first test. The Nittany Lions picked up some big road wins last season (at Illinois and at Michigan State) and must show equal grit and resilience in Minneapolis, especially with always-tough Wisconsin coming to town the following week.

--Junior forward David Jackson suffered a hyperextension of the right knee in Penn State's regular-season finale against American but could return after an eight-day layoff in time for the Nittany Lions' Dec. 29 confidence opener at Minnesota.

--Scoring help for Penn State junior guard Talor Battle should be on the way next season. His half-brother, Taran Buie, signed a letter of intent in November and is off to a strong start during his senior season at State College Area High School, leading the Little Lions to an early 5-1 start.

--Penn State is still a few weeks away from the return of reserve guard Adam Highberger, who broke a finger on his right, shooting hand last month. The Nittany Lions expect to have Highberger available by the end of January.

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