IOWA (14-3, 3-3) VS. PENN STATE (7-10, 0-6)
If you don't look past that sub-.500 record and goose egg in the conference, you'd think that Penn State has no chance against Iowa Wednesday night. Any boomlet launched by the Nittany Lions' NIT championship run last spring is long since gone, and PSU is destined to move quickly back to its 17-17 Pat Chambers stasis.
But my word, has Penn State's schedule been difficult. They have played eight opponents ranked in the Kenpom top 35, six of them in their first six Big Ten games. Penn State opened that grouping with a win over Virginia Tech at BJC, but has lost the next seven. And with Iowa now back up to #34 in Kenpom, the Nittany Lions get another chance to break that streak.
This is still a Pat Chambers team, so it's probably going to play solid defense and genuinely terrible offense. And lo and behold, Penn State is third in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency and ahead of only Rutgers on the other side of the ball. In Big Ten games alone -- remember, all against some pretty good teams, but still -- Penn State is running at an atrocious .87 points per possession. They don't shoot it well (46.7% effective rate). They don't shoot free throws well (67%). They don't protect the ball (19% turnover rate; 10% steal rate). They don't get shots to the rim (10% of shots blocked). All of those numbers are in the mid-to-low 200s nationally. Only Rutgers and Illinois are even close to this level of offensive ineptitude among the conference.
And yet, for as bad as those numbers are on offense, Penn State's defense is about as good as there is south of Michigan. They force opponents to grind out possessions, contest every pass, and hit the boards hard. You've got to shoot them out of it, and the bet is that the turnovers and rebounds get you before you can find your range.
Again, it's Pat Chambers, so you can count on a rotation so deep that even Fran McCaffery has to sit back and say "dammmmmmnnnn". Penn State is running out ten guys at more than ten minutes a game. The frontcourt pair of junior Lamar Stevens (6'8", 230, 18.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and senior Josh Reaves (6'5", 215, 10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) have been getting the most time, with Stevens leading the team in scoring, ranking second in rebounding and assists, and dominating the country in ill-advised three-point shots (he's 8/47 on the season, a spectacular 17% from behind the arc). Freshmen guards Rasir Bolton (6'2", 180) and the excellently-named Myles Dread (6'4", 215) are slightly more competent from the perimeter, but Penn State doesn't really have a killer three-point shooter. Chambers does have plenty of large humans to throw at Iowa's front line; there's Stevens, centers Mike Watkins (6'9", 255) and John Harrar (6'9", 245), and forward Trent Buttrick (6'8", 235), all of which average at least ten minutes a game and commit fouls by the bucketload.
On paper, this remains a game Iowa should probably win. The Hawkeyes have been pretty good at handling the ball in recent weeks (that trainwreck against OSU notwithstanding) and can clearly shoot over Penn State's defense at a high enough rate to rattle the Lions. On the other end of the court, Penn State simply doesn't get to the rim enough to exploit Iowa's greatest defensive weakness, and BJC isn't the kind of environment that intimidates teams into imploding.
But trusting Penn State's numbers when their schedule has been so brutal leaves us open to overconfidence. PSU is probably better than the numbers show. We just have to hope they don't finally find their car keys Wednesday night.