Note: This was written on the night of the 29th, since everyone's going to the bowl game.
Ed DeChellis, Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks and just about everyone else who was responsible for Penn State's recent dominance of Northwestern is gone, and the 'Cats will likely be about a 10 point favorite, but until Bill Carmody finally beats Penn State, it will be hard for NU fans to feel confident about a game against Penn State.
Penn State comes into tonight's game 8-6 overall, and they just lost their Big Ten opener 71-53 at Michigan. Their only win even approaching a quality win came on a neutral court against a mediocre South Florida team (7-7, #129 KenPom), and they lost at home to Lafayette. They were 143rd in KenPom as of Thursday night, and that figures to go down after the loss to Michigan. Penn State is probably the worst team in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lion offense in particular is by far the worst in the Big Ten, ranking 212th nationally. They are bad at shooting twos (253rd), threes (250th) and free throws (281st). The only thing their offense does well is rebound their frequent misses, grabbing 37.6 percent of their misses. By comparison, Northwestern rebounds just 25% of their misses.
Tim Frazier has done it all for Penn State, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals per game. He's not much of a perimeter shooter, posting just a 43.6 eFG%, but he's very dangerous driving to the basket and gets to the line a ton: he's already attempted 108 free throws this season and draws 7.4 fouls per game, more fouls than even Jared Sullinger draws. He's also a great passer, leading the Big Ten in assists per game and assists on half of Penn State's made field goals, second nationally. Without Frazier, this Penn State team would probably be as bad as that probation-decimated Indiana team in 2008-09.
Frazier is basically it as far as offensive threats. Slashing guards Jermaine Marshall and Cameron Woodyard are second and third on Penn State in scoring, and both shoot under 40% from the field. Their centers consist of Billy Oliver, who does nothing but shoot threes and only hits 32% of them, and Sasa Borovnjak, a lumbering, low-usage Euro. These two are the poor men versions of Luka Mirkovic and Davide Curletti. A trio of freshmen also play: guard Trey Lewis who shoots 39% from three but doesn't do much else, wing Ross Travis who is the team's best per minute rebounder, and big man Jonathan Graham, who is still very raw. They also start a JUCO transfer named Matt Glover sometimes who shoots under 30% from the field. So, yeah.
Their defense is a lot better, ranking 100th nationally (well ahead of Northwestern), but they don't match up well with Northwestern's offense. The two things they do well are forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding, and Northwestern very rarely turns the ball over and doesn't really try to offensive rebound, so that bodes well for NU. Watching them this season, new head coach Pat Chambers likes to use a three-quarter court trap, so Dave Sobolewski will have to continue to take good care of the ball.
Where NU really appears to have an edge offensively is that Penn State has been terrible at defending the three: opponents have taken nearly half their field goals from behind the arc and hit a solid 35% of them, and that's against a largely weak non-conference schedule, so Northwestern should get a ton of open threes. Combined with the fact Penn State is extremely young and most of their players haven't faced the Princeton offense, you'd have to expect a strong offensive game from NU.
Still, Northwestern is more than capable of losing this game. If the threes aren't falling and Frazier goes off, it could be a long evening. Stopping Frazier is the key: when he's had bad games Penn State has been horrible, doing things like losing to Lafayette and scoring 10 points in a half in a blowout loss to Saint Joseph's. So hopefully Northwestern can bounce back from the Ohio State blowout and get a win, if they don't, it will become quite clear that NU isn't an NCAA tournament team.