IOWA (10-3) VS. PENN STATE (11-2)
The New Year has passed, which means that -- two-game early-December thing aside -- it's truly Big Ten basketball season, and Iowa kicks it off in style. The Hawkeyes get an all-Top 25 matchup in one of the cathedrals of the sport, Philadelphia's Palestra. It's the college basketball game of the day, according to Kenpom.com, on a day that includes Kansas-West Virginia, Florida State-Louisville and Indiana-Maryland. Even on NFL Wild Card Weekend, it's a true must-watch event when the Hawkeyes take on...
[puts on glasses]
[looks at notecard]
Wait, this can't be right.
This says Penn State.
[looks up, rereads quietly] all top-25 matchup in the Palestra...college basketball game of the day...
[looks back at notecard]
Yeah, checks out. Penn State, I guess?
The Nittany Lions are 11-2 and ranked No. 21 in the AP poll this week, two spots ahead of Iowa. When you dig into the schedule a bit, that looks somewhat skewed: PSU did hammer Maryland at home back on December 10, a game that certainly caught the attention of voters as Maryland's first loss of the season. Aside from that, PSU has recorded one other win against a Kenpom Top 50 team, a 15-point win at Georgetown way back on November 14. Wins over schools like Syracuse and Wake Forest are nice, but neither program is where it historically has been. That's how Penn State gets an AP ranking two spots ahead of Iowa and a Kenpom ranking six spots below. Nevertheless, wins are better than losses, and Penn State's losses -- a blowout at Ohio State and a somewhat-surprising defeat against Ole Miss in Brooklyn -- aren't debilitating. By typical non-conference standards, they've been sufficiently tested, and passed those tests to date.
The Kenpom profile looks like a team with a battleship center patrolling the lane: Penn State is ninth nationally in blocked shot rate, rejecting one shot in every six, and eighth in two-point shot defense. The Nittany Lions are also shooting 55 percent from inside the three-point arc, get just six percent of their own shot attempts blocked, and rebound one-third of their own missed shots. That's why it's such a surprise when you get to the roster and find that the center is 6'9" senior Mike Watkins, and that there's nobody taller than Watkins on the bench.
But Watkins (6'9", 257, 11.2 ppg) leads the team in rebounds (9.4 rpg) and blocks; his 3.5 blocked shots per game is fifth nationally. He blocked eight shots in the loss to Ole Miss, seven against Marlyand-Eastern Shore, and five each against Wake Forest and CCSU. All of those teams (except for UMES, which is just awful) get a bunch of scoring in the paint from guards, which gives Mike Watkins a target-rich environment.
Watkins' ability to do all the small things frees up fellow senior forward Lamar Stevens (6'8", 225) to lead the team in scoring (16.4 ppg), add 7.2 rebounds per contest, and run up the kind of usage rate you'd expect from a good combo guard. It also lets Penn State's guards focus less on keeping opponents in front of them and more on jumping passes, which is how the Nittany Lions have recorded a steal on every eighth possession. Of the backcourt trio, sophomore shooting guard Myreon Jones (6'3", 175, 14.5 ppg) is definitely the one to watch. Jones is Penn State's only consistent deep threat, shooting north of 40 percent from three and averaging nearly six attempts per game. Junior point guard Jamari Wheeler (6'1", 170) is a null set on offense (4.1 ppg, 2.9 apg), and sophomore Myles Dread (6'4", 215, 8.5 ppg) shoots for volume from the perimeter (6.9 three-point attempts per game) but not for efficiency (31.1% from three). Junior Izaiah Brockington (6'4", 200) provides production off the bench (9.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Senior Curtis Jones (6'4", 180, 7.2 ppg) has gotten significant minutes in recent weeks, but the numbers aren't great.
Somewhat surprisingly for a team with its profile, Penn State doesn't really pound the paint or get an exorbitant amount of shot attempts in the paint. Both Jones and Dread hoist up a bunch of threes, and more than 40 percent of Penn State's shot attempts are from behind the arc despite the team shooting just 33 percent from three. They're just a lot better when they do focus on the interior game, because that's where their best talent is generally located. It's kind of weird, but then again, it's Pat Chambers, so "kinda weird" is a given.
All of this is built on Watkins holding down the interior, which is why Penn State's two previous Big Ten games are so illustrative. Ohio State took Watkins completely out of the game, with Kaleb Wesson getting him into foul trouble and limiting him to 17 minutes, 6 points, 3 rebounds and a single blocked shot. With the battleship incapacitated, Ohio State struck, dropping 106 on Penn State in just 70 possessions. (Penn State also gave up 16 points to Georgetown seven-footer Omer Yurtseven, but got a nightmare performance from just about the rest of the entire Hoya roster in a November win).
Three days later, Penn State faced Maryland. If you haven't seen the Terps yet, they're huge, with a 6'10" forward in the middle and two 6'10" freshmen off the bench. But Maryland is also built on point guard Anthony Cowan getting into the lane to score and distribute. Watkins went off for 15 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in a season-high 30 minutes, and Penn State won with relative ease.
This team is built to stop the dribble drive, slash-and-kick game. Iowa, post-Bohannon, doesn't really play the slash-and-kick that much. If Luka Garza is allowed to do his thing and gets Watkins in foul trouble, Iowa quickly becomes a favorite here. The Hawkeyes don't turn it over -- the Cincinnati game an obvious exception -- and don't rely on guards scoring in the paint. Ball movement and frontcourt scoring has killed Penn State in the past, and it could again Saturday.