Maryland travels up north to Penn State on Wednesday for their installment of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. We've had our fun with #PSUHateWeek and the fact that Penn State's trying to hate Maryland (in basketball!). We've complained about Maryland getting shafted again the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. (On that note, Maryland better be playing Illinois at the Comcast Center next year. Sean Mosley needs another shot at Jereme Richmond.)
But now we need to talk seriously for a minute about Penn State's actual basketball team. Yes, they have one.
It'd be easy to write off the Nittany Lions. There's next-to-no basketball tradition or reputation. They haven't been in the NCAA tournament since 2001. They were 3-15 in the Big Ten last year (11-20 overall) and haven't seen any major influx of talent. There's not a lot of fan support. It's just not a basketball school.
There are, however, a few bright spots. Talor Battle is a legitimate star, fully battle-tested (pun very much intended) as a senior. There's a good bit of experience, with four senior starters. They've seen a solid start to the year, with an early 5-1 record. There's even some height in the frontcourt (at least compared to the other teams Maryland's faced) and a solid young sixth man in Taran Buie.
Really, though, Penn State's hopes start and end with Battle.
If anyone has the potential to make Maryland's trip up north unpleasant, it's the 6-0 senior combo guard. He was an all-Big Ten first teamer his sophomore year and was a second teamer last year. He's continued excelling this year: he's averaging 18.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. The assists are his lowest number since his freshman year, which might be due to either a general lack of scoring options or some struggles with a hip injury early in the year. He's not a crazy good shooter - 38% this year, 35% last year - and instead relies on breaking his man down off the dribble, but he'll knock down an open jumper.
He hasn't dominated in any of their losses so far, instead deferring when the outcome isn't in doubt, but he took over in their lone loss at Mississippi. In that game, he dropped 26 on 7-12 shooting and 5-8 shooting from 3. Oh, and he played 39 minutes in the game (for the math-challenged, that means he sat for one lonely minute). He is the focal point of this team and is their go-to guy in pressure situations, which this game figures to be full of (at least for PSU).
Outside of one or two guys, the rest of the team is pretty much one big question mark. The frontcourt is made up of three seniors: 6-10 Andrew Jones, 6-8 Jeff Brooks, and 6-7 David Jackson. Jackson, a fifth-year senior, has been the most consistent over the course of the three's careers, but it's Brooks that's taken the biggest leap this season. Brooks has become the second-most productive player on the team, averaging 16 and 7.5 a game. He showed up big in their biggest game of the year (@ Ole Miss, if you forgot), with 15 and 9. He's even been decent at knocking down open threes.
Jones is the problem, for both teams. Maryland's short frontcourt can handle two guys measuring 6-8 and 6-7, but Jones has height that can only be matched by Berend Weijs (uh oh). It's a good thing, then, that Jones has never been a consistent presence for PSU. He's been good for about 5 points and 6 rebounds his entire career, and not a bucket or board more. It's been no different this year. If Maryland can keep him there and not let him go all Talib Zanna, things should be okay.
Sophomore point guard Tim Frazier rounds out the starting five. He doesn't bring a lot of scoring power - only 4 ppg this year, 5 ppg last year - but he's a decent distributor, with 5.5 assists per game and an A/TO ratio in the 2s. Another forward, 6-8 freshman Billy Oliver, and freshman point guard - and former Terp target, if you remember - Taran Buie are the first two off the bench. OIiver provides some defense and a little rebounding, while Buie has shown himself a prolific scorer probably deserving of more playing time.
Past that, there's very little. This is not a deep team. Oliver is the only player outside of the starting lineup taller than 6-5. Ed DeChellis played only eight guys against St. Joe's and just seven against Mississippi. If players start getting into foul trouble, especially front court players, Penn State's going to be in a very bad situation. With Jordan Williams on the floor, that might be a very likely outcome.
Those problems are compounded by the fact that Penn State's a traditional Big Ten team in that they play very slowly. Of the major conferences, only Arizona St. and a handful of other Big Ten teams play at a slower pace than Penn St. does. So when Maryland starts playing in transition, Penn State's athleticism and stamina is going to be seriously tested with a lineup so shallow.
A couple more notes worth mentioning: Penn State's not a great three-point shooting team, with Battle and Brooks - a big man who's never been a great shooter before the first few games of this year (ie, fluky?) - the only serious outside shooters. Against St. Joe's, they shot 1-21 from 3. Read that again. Nor are they are a particularly great rebounding team; they aren't bad, but their leading rebounder only has 7.5 boards a game and they were outrebounded Mississippi. Maryland has a better rebounding% despite playing better competition.
And the Nittany Lions' 5-1 start is a little misleading: the best opponent they've toppled is probably St. Joe's, by just 9. Against Mississippi on the road - their only game against a top 100 opponent - they lost by 13.
KenPom likes Penn State a lot for reasons unknown to me. It even has Penn State winning this game. And no, I have no idea why. I'm trying not to let my new-found PSU dislike get in the way here, but Penn State's not a particularly intimidating team. They're experienced and won't back down from a fight, definitely, and Battle might cause some problems. But they're not particularly good shooters, are average rebounders, run a very slow pace, and aren't deep at all. Call me crazy, but I just see Penn State as a decent team that just happens to be a good matchup for Maryland.
So long as Battle doesn't go crazy or Penn State miraculously finds some long-lost shooting stroke, the Terrapins should be okay in this one. Of course, now it's guaranteed that it'll be a nail-biter. I just have that magic touch.