Wisconsin has won the last seven games in its series with Penn State, but winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy. Case in point, the Badgers (10-9, 2-4 Big Ten) couldn't get over the hump against Northwestern in Evanston, in the same venue the Nittany Lions (11-8, 2-4) jumped all over the Wildcats last Saturday.
After toppling Michigan State, Wisconsin is staring at a trap game away from home at Penn State. Earlier in the year, UW responded to a big road win at Syracuse with one of its best team performances versus Temple. The Badgers will have to channel that same mojo against PSU, whose defense is designed to force opponents out of the paint and survive on outside shots. Even though shooting has improved under Greg Gard's watch, that is still a scary proposition for this team.
Meanwhile, Penn State lacks a dynamic playmaker like it has featured so extensively in the past, but still has a balanced team with a young point guard, a versatile leader at forward and a seven-footer anchoring the defense. Eric Gibson writes for Black Shoe Diaries and breaks down this year's Nittany Lions.
B5Q: Both Wisconsin and Penn State are coming off their biggest win of the season -- in PSU's case winning handily at Northwestern, where the Badgers just lost. In what areas have the Nittany Lions improved the most since the beginning of the year?
Black Shoe Diaries (Eric): This actually is a really tough question to answer. Expectations for PSU were understandably low after losing DJ Newbill and further lessened once Geno Thorpe (transfer) and Mike Watkins (ineligible) exited the picture. I don't want to say this team hasn't improved, but outside of the Northwestern game, there hasn't been many unexpected results. This team just isn't very talented at the moment, so there's only so much you can expect from them against the top-half of the Big Ten. Prior to Northwestern, they lost three-of-four by 17 or more points and were down 8 late in the second half to Minnesota. I think the expectation for most of us is to find improvement against the bottom half of the Big Ten, since PSU has plenty of competition down there this year.
B5Q: On the flip side, conference play brings new challenges. Wisconsin hasn't been able to corral as many offensive rebounds as it did in the non-con. Likewise, Penn State's defense was much better than its offense before the large step up in competition. Despite facing shot blocker Jordan Dickerson inside, opponents have been content to destroy PSU from the three-point land. What's up with the perimeter defense?
BSD: It's a myriad of issues, but I'll try to keep this short. It's simply too easy to break down PSU's defense whether it's zone or man. The big men struggle to defend ball screens, and the guards can't consistently prevent blow bys. Dickerson can block and alter shots down low, but he's just as likely to foul. So the typical PSU game will see their bigs get in foul trouble early which will make Chambers adjust his defenses. They'll be forced to double-team the post, but they'll eventually miss a rotation and leave someone on the perimeter. They'll also mix in plenty of 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones, but they can't rebound very well out of them. That often leads to the offensive board-kickout-open three. Oh, and they're pretty poor at picking shooters up in transition. So yeah, they don't do anything particular well in the perimeter defense department. They did alright against Northwestern because the Wildcats did a poor job penetrating PSU's zone and settled for far too many threes.
B5Q: Senior forward Brandon Taylor has been a key contributor for four years now, but I've always viewed him as a player not living up to his potential; compiling stats, but not a difference maker on the big stage like a Battle, Frazier or Newbill. Statistically Taylor has made a huge leap this year, getting to free throw line and leading the team at 16.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. How accurate was my assessment prior to this season and how much has it been blown up in Taylor's final campaign?
BSD: I definitely think that's a fair way to describe Taylor and that's how I would have even described most of his play in the non-conference this year. Numbers aren't everything, especially if you're not winning. However, Taylor has really come on strong in conference play, and his improvement has been nothing short of remarkable. As evidenced by his FTA, he's no longer living on the perimeter to the delight of PSU fans, and he's finally seeing the floor out of the double-team. In Penn State's two Big Ten wins, he had 8 assists. In their four losses, he only had 4 assists. So when he can force the defense to respect the pass (which is also dependent on his teammates hitting shots), he really can do some damage. I'm much more excited for the Hayes/Taylor matchup than I was 3-4 weeks ago.
B5Q: Another positive is that Penn State is getting to the charity stripe a ton in Big Ten games. Describe what Penn State's offensive philosophy is and what is generating these opportunities for easy points.
BSD: Unfortunately nothing really comes easy for this offense, and that also traces back to the talent issues. Chambers runs a loose motion offense that will look to get the ball to Taylor and Shep Garner. They will try to get Taylor isolated on the post and let him make plays, while Shep has the proverbial green light from the perimeter. Garner certainly can make difficult shots off the bounce, but as with any shooter like that, he's streaky. Payton Banks is the third reliable option, but he's reliable in the sense that he'll at least use possessions. He's struggled with his efficiency in Big Ten play, especially off the bounce on his drives. As for the team's foul line success so far, those numbers are a bit inflated by the foul-a-thon endings to their wins against Minnesota and Northwestern. What could be a difference for Penn State's offense is Donovon Jack finding himself last week and returning to his sophomore form, but we need to see more from the senior than just his past two games.
B5Q: Head coach Pat Chambers relies on heavily Taylor and sophomore point guard Shep Garner and then a bunch of guys he's experimenting with for the rest of the minutes. What does Penn State lose with freshman guard Josh Reaves out of the lineup? His absence has led to three different starting lineups over the last three games.
BSD: Reaves is a high-level athlete with natural instincts, especially on the defensive end of the floor. He's an electric defender that always gets his hands in the passing lanes and can block a shot from anywhere. But he's got a long way to go on the offensive end. In his absence, Penn State has played a taller lineup with two bigs at the same time, but that's what the matchups called for against Purdue and Northwestern. The biggest benefactor from his absence is expected to be true freshman Deividas "Davis" Zemgulis. The Lithuanian was an unknown recruit that was heralded for his perimeter shooting. That part of his game hasn't quite been as impactful as we had hoped, but he's proven to be much more on both ends of the court. He'll put the ball on the floor if you close out too hard, and he has a knack for finding the ball and collecting garbage points in the lane.
B5Q: I'm uneasy about this road trip. What do you feel the final score will look like?
BSD: I am confident in saying it's going to be a competitive game, and I do expect it to be another slow, low-scoring affair. The first team to 60 will probably win it. For Penn State, I'm concerned about Happ and his footwork baiting Penn State's big men into their usual foul troubles. I'm also concerned they'll let Koenig loose from the perimeter, since that's always a concern no matter who they play. But I do think PSU can match up alright with Wisconsin on the offensive end and am hopeful their seniors can keep their recent resurgence going for another week.
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