Inside The Matchup: PSU

Each remaining game for Northwestern is absolutely crucial, as the program seeks its first ever NCAA Tournament berth. The first hill to climb is in Happy Valley, as the Wildcats battle with Penn State. PurpleWildcats.com takes you inside the matchup.

Coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss against Michigan, Northwestern is entering the must-win part of its schedule, as every game left may be crucial to the Wildcats achieving their first NCAA Tournament berth.

This game is a must for the Cats, as they can't afford a loss against one of the worst teams in the league. However, it could be a trap game, as Penn State is 4-3 at home this season and NU has a big matchup with Ohio State looming.

The Nittany Lions are on a bit of an uptick, beating Nebraska and Iowa in back-to-back games before just a 10-point loss at Wisconsin. Tim Frazier's supporting class is starting to come together and Frazier has proven himself first team All-Big Ten worthy.

NU has struggled at Penn State at times, so don't expect this game to be a walk in the park for the Cats.

LAST MEETING:

Despite trailing at halftime, Northwestern came back to beat Penn State 68-56 at Welsh-Ryan Arena in the second game of the Big Ten season.

KEY PLAYER FOR THE WILDCATS: John Shurna

Shurna has been one of the most valuable players in the Big Ten this season and leads the conference in scoring with 20 points per game. He's carried the Wildcats in some of their biggest wins, but was relatively quiet in NU's loss to Michigan.

As the leader of his team, Shurna can't afford to fade down the stretch and can't be afraid to take more shots. He's the surest shooter on the floor and the Cats need to get him the ball as much as possible.

If Shurna is quiet and can't spark the offense, NU could be prime for an upset.

KEY FOR THE NITTANY LIONS: Open up multiple scoring options

Without any secondary scoring threat, Penn State has had trouble getting Tim Frazier open looks, as teams haven't had to focus on anyone else.

The last few games, the Nittany Lions have done a good job of opening up other scoring options, particularly Jermaine Marshall, Cammeron Woodyard and Jonathan Graham.

Frazier will still be the focal point of the offense, but If other players can get hot on offense for the Nittany Lions, they'll be able to spread the defense, opening up more shots for Frazier and his teammates.

KEY FOR A WILDCAT VICTORY: Play well inside

Ever since Billy Oliver went down with injury — and really, even before that — Penn State has not been able to come up with a solid inside scoring presence. Jonathan Graham has certainly improved in that area over the past few games, but the Nittany Lions are still relatively weak at scoring in the paint.

That bodes well for Northwestern, which has also been bad down low this season.

NU has to be able to come up with second chance points and it needs Davide Curletti to have another good game. If the Cats can open things up down low, they'll also be able to open up outside shots and backdoor cuts, which are the staples of their offense.

PREDICTION:

Northwestern certainly has more talent and experience and needs this game more. However, it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats respond after a crushing loss to Michigan and under pressure for an NCAA Tournament berth.

With NU's recent struggles at the Bryce Jordan Center and Penn State's sudden reemergence, this could be the perfect storm for the Cats to fall out of the bubble.

I said before the Michigan game that besides this Ohio State game, I thought this would be NU's toughest before the end of the regular season.

If John Shurna can return to the form he showed in early February and the Cats shut down Penn State inside, NU should roll to a win. However, with PSU's sudden reemergence, the Nittany Lions may have the upper hand.

It wouldn't surprise me at all to see NU pick up a win, but in a game that may be too close to call, I'm going with the home team.

SCORE PREDICTION: Penn State 72, Northwestern 68


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