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On the road with the Boilers

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In theory tonight's game with Penn State should be an easy one. The Nittany Lions have lost their best player, and one of the best in the Big Ten, for the season with a knee injury and have struggled since he went down. They have lost three straight, two of them since Geary Claxton's injury. Even with Claxton they had lost a couple of questionable games that had put them on the bubble, but they were still a formidable team that many expected to challenge for an NCAA bid. In the mean time we have been playing very good basketball of late. As Penn State has moved back we have moved up to the point some are saying we could challenge for the conference title already.

In theory, however, Communism works. If there is one thing I have learned from watching Big Ten basketball it is that any team can beat another while defending their home court. All it takes is the road team coming in and taking the home team for granted. We learned this lesson last season in surprising road losses at Indiana State, Minnesota, and Iowa. I know the Sycamores aren't in the Big Ten, but it was still a game where we came in a little too confident and quite simply got our asses handed to us. For a more recent example one needs only to look at the Iowa-Michigan State game from a few weeks ago. You cannot take any road venue for granted in this league, even Northwestern. We must remember this tonight or the Nittany Lions, shorthanded as they may be, will beat us and undo all of the good we have accomplished in the past few weeks.

Penn State so far:

As mentioned in the opener, Penn State had its share of struggles before Claxton got injured. They were invited to play in the Old Spice Classic in Florida early in the season and promptly lost all three games to South Carolina, Rider, and Central Florida. Each loss was by at least 7 points, so they were barely competitive in finishing 8th in the eight team tournament. After dropping a game at St. Joseph's Penn State did have a modest seven game winning streak before the Claxton injury. That streak included two wins to start Big Ten play over Northwestern and Illinois on the road.

The best win the Nittany Lions have probably came back in December against Virginia Tech. The Hokies are 11-7 right now and part of the large bubble pool over in the ACC. They also have a nice win over Seton Hall who sits at 12-6 and is on the Big East bubble. The rest of Penn State's wins have come against lower division teams and the bottom of the Big Ten. Honestly, the Nittany Lions would have been in a much better position with a better showing in the Old Spice Classic, because even then they have yet to suffer a bad conference loss. They have also been particularly tough at home, losing only to Minnesota (but that occurred before Claxton's injury) and Wisconsin.

Who is dangerous for the Nittany Lions:

At the time of his injury, Geary Claxton was second in the Big Ten in scoring only to Eric Gordon at IU. Claxton was pouring 17.5 points per game, which is an average that will likely stay in the top 10 even as the season continues. Needless to say he was a large part of the Penn State attack, but the Nittany Lions have now had a game and a half to adjust to life without him. Junior Jamelle Cornley is now the team's leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. He has been a starter since day 1 for Penn State, so he brings plenty of experience to the table. He only stands 6-5, but he has a 240lb. frame to deal with in the post and he can step outside to hit the occasional three.

Freshman guard Taylor Battle and Junior guard Danny Morrissey are the next high scorers at just over 8 points per game. Battle has been especially good since the Claxton injury, scoring 20 against Indiana on Sunday. Battle is learning to distribute the ball well as a freshman point guard, leading his team in assists. Senior guard Mike Walker had a particularly good game against Virginia tech with 17 points, but he has been relatively quiet since then.

What not to fear from Penn State:

Obviously, losing a player like Claxton from a team that relied on him to do a little bit of everything is a severe blow. He also was Penn State's leading rebounder at more than 8 per game. That honor now falls to Cornley at just 6.4 per game. Penn State has almost zero size in the paint with only 6-11 senior Brandon Hassell logging significant minutes. His minutes are even down since last season, and he has yet to do anything of note in Big Ten play. Regardless of this lack of size, Penn State still leads the conference in offensive rebounds per game, though again, a large portion of that statistic was gained with Claxton.

Complicating matters even more is the fact that Penn State does not shoot the ball well no matter where they are shooting it. Percentage-wise they shoot better from the floor than us at 43%, but they rank only ahead of Illinois from the free throw line (60%) and ninth in the conference from 3-point land. This shows that even with Claxton they struggled to shoot the ball, and he was shooting just under 50%. Technically Penn State is scoring almost a point more per game than us, but they have put up some big numbers in games against teams like Lehigh and Canisius.

General Outlook:

Up until Claxton got hurt I had Penn State as one of the tier 2 teams we would be fighting for an NCAA berth. Since then the Nittany Lions have lost two games, but they have come against Indiana and Wisconsin. For a half Penn State was able to stay with the Hoosiers in Assembly Hall, but Indiana pulled away to a 16 point win. In that game Cornley and Battle had big games, but received almost no help from anyone else.

I kind of see Penn State as a distorted image of our team from last year with Cornley playing the role of Carl Landry. He is their only real post presence at this time, so it will be key for Calasan and Johnson to get established in the paint early. I would like to see us overwhelm them inside with some of our own size by playing both Calasan and Johnson at the same time. If possible we could even send Chris Reid in to give them some fits. Nemanja seems to be going hot-cold on us, and his last game was hot. If he stays that way tonight we shouldn't have too much trouble.

Defensively Penn State ranks 9th in the conference in scoring, and since we seem to rotate scoring better than any team in the league we should be able to keep them guessing. Keaton Grant has the hot hand of late, so if he is on let's ride him until he bucks us. If he isn't on early we need to simply shift to whoever will be on tonight, be it Kramer, Moore, Green, Hummel, or Martin. I am still calling for Kramer to shoot more because we usually have success when he does. He has only been in double figures once at home this season and that came against Bethune-Cookman. He blew up against Michigan State though and we nearly got the upset.

Honestly, if we take this team seriously tonight I expect to win. They are one of the few teams in the conference that we have a size advantage against if we choose to press it. They also are still adjusting to missing nearly a quarter of their offense and rebounding. The points have to come from somewhere and I feel that if we can contain Cornley we should be able to come out with another road win. We cannot afford to look past them to Saturday when Wisconsin comes to town. I know many are looking at the Wisconsin game as a way to announce that we're indeed ready to contend right now, but to give that game its full value we have to take care of business on the road tonight. A win would also give us half of the necessary tier 3 wins I have outlined in my NCAA scenario. Since I have a hard time seeing us losing to Northwestern in either game it would also put us in a good position to finish with at least three road wins, which is already a step up from last year.

We must distribute the ball to the hot hand while getting everyone else involved in the offense, we must dominate the paint when we have the favorable matchup, and we must contain Cornley. If we do those three things we should be able to win easily, but there is very rarely such a thing as an easy win on the road.

Just to be safe, I think we should require each player to douse themselves in Old Spice cologne before tip-off.

Purdue 72, Penn State 62