Today we return to the scene of a championship. Last year's Big Ten title did not come easily. Even in the finale against Penn State we had to sweat out a game into the final minute. Still, we have happy memories of our last trip to Happy Valley. It ended with new championship T-shirts and a feeling that we had survived a brutal conference season.
We return to Happy Valley today to face a Penn State team that appears destined for another double-digit place finish in the Big Ten. They currently sit above a few teams for their upset at Indiana, but this is the same team that lost to Maine at home by 10 points. So far, Purdue is firing on all cylinders in Big Ten play. Even then, no Big Ten road win can be taken for granted.
2009-10 Record: 11-20, 3-15 Big Ten
2010-11 Record: 8-5, 1-1 Big Ten
Postseason Result: None
Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 24-10 (Leads 9-8 in Happy Valley)
Last Purdue win: 3/6/2010 64-60 at Penn State
Last Penn State win: 1/6/2009 67-64 at Penn State
Time & TV 6:30pm on Big Ten Network
I will always have an affinity for Penn State because the folks at Black Shoe Diaries were among the most accommodating when I made the move to SBNation. They, along with the Daily Gopher and Maize N' Brew answered a lot of my questions two years ago when I made the move over. They already have a stellar preview posted for today's game, and they aren't very confident.
On the surface Penn state looks like they are Talor Battle and four other guys on the floor. Their highest ranking in the four statistical categories that ESPN rates is 228th in field goal percentage. This is before you consider them facing our ridiculous defense. Battle is one of the best players in the conference. In my opinion, he is a First-Team All-Conference performer so far with JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, Jared Sullinger, and John Shurna. The kid shoots nearly 40% from long range, can create his own shot, and can both rebound and distribute for good measure. He is a triple-double waiting to happen every night.
Unfortunately, Penn State pretty much needs to have him average a triple-double. Jeff Brooks and David Jackson have stepped up their scoring to double-figures levels (giving them an advantage in some eyes because they have the elusive third scorer), but very little happens outside of these three. Taran Buie, Battle's little brother, has been effective in limited minutes. He hasn't played in the conference season so far. Tim Frazier and Andrew Jones are fellow starters with Brooks, Battle, and Jackson, but they haven't done a lot of late.
This will be Penn State's first home game in conference play, but their last appearance in the Bryce Jordan Center was a 74-64 loss to Maine. They too played at Virginia Tech and lost 79-69. The other losses (at Michigan, at Mississippi, Maryland) aren't bad, but that Maine one is ugly. They were essentially dominated at home by a team from the America East Conference.
JJ will match up with Jones, a 6'10" senior center that has good size, but does not have the versatility of JJ. Jones is basically a rebounding guy that takes very few shots per game. BSD thinks that Penn State will have a chance if they can manage to take away either JJ or E'Twaun, but they admit that doing either will be difficult.
As usual, it will be key to see who else steps up to help our superb duo. Ryne Smith is averaging 15 points per game in conference play. It is safe to say that if he keeps up that pace we will have a lot of success. D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson are due for breakout games, and I think Kelsey Barlow and Lewis Jackson will find some room to drive tonight.
Defensively I think we don't have to change much tonight. We can afford to guard the perimeter and allow JJ to swat anything within five feet of the basket. JJ went for 21 and 10 in the second game last year with three blocks. He got to the line 14 times, hitting 11, so I am not worried about them stopping him offensively. E'Twaun was held to 9 points, which was his regular season low (aside from his dismal 1 of 14, 2 point Big Ten tourney game vs. Minnesota). Keaton Grant picked up the slack with 17, and it should be noted that The Assassin still had a huge 3-pointer with a minute left to push the lead to 6, as well as ice-cold free throws with 17 seconds left to make it 63-60.
Honestly, as long as we continue to play as we have played in the last two games I don't see us having too much trouble tonight. There isn't a duo in the country playing as well as JJ and E'twaun. Their supporting cast is doing everything in the right spots too. Remember, it is all about the supporting cast being pieces with everyone else. We don't need an unexpected 20 every night from someone else. We're going to do just fine if they can fill their specific roles.
I hesitate to predict a double-digit win just because it is hard to guarantee those on the road in Big Ten play. Penn State has some fight in them. They won at Assembly Hall for only the second time ever. As bad as Indiana has looked, they had still defended their homecourt well until that point. I am looking for a comfortable win tonight where we can get the Hansons some much needed run.