After grinding through a two-game road stretch at Wisconsin and Minnesota with a split, IU men’s basketball returns to Bloomington for a pair of Big Ten home games that features Penn State and Northwestern. First up are the Nittany Lions, who will be in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for a 6:30 p.m. tip-off Tuesday.
Last year, IU and Penn State played a pair of tight games. James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a road win early in the conference season, and the Hoosiers needed three overtimes to beat the Nittany Lions 110-102 at home in February.
The Hoosiers are 9-7 coming into this game and are looking to improve to a winning record in the Big Ten for the first time this season. Here are five things to look for when IU takes on Penn State.
Both teams are looking to separate themselves from the Big Ten pack
Penn State and IU both bring 2-2 records in Big Ten play into Tuesday night’s battle. Six teams are currently clogging the middle of the conference standings with two losses, so the winner will get a needed boost into the top half of the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers and the Nittany Lions have both beaten the Iowa Hawkeyes, who are winless to start Big Ten play. Meanwhile, Penn State also beat a Wisconsin team that knocked off IU last week.
Penn State brings the pressure
Led by freshman guard Jamari Wheeler and junior guard Josh Reaves, the Nittany Lions have forced more turnovers than all but 22 other Division I teams this season. Penn State ranks ninth in the country in steals with more than nine per game, and Wheeler and Reaves both average more than two per game.
IU has cut down on its turnover problem a bit from last season and has slightly more assists than turnovers as a team so far this year. The Hoosiers’ senior backcourt of Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk will need to work particularly hard to take care of the ball against Wheeler, Reaves and company.
The Nittany Lions get significant contributions from all five starters
All five of Penn State’s regular starters play 27 minutes per game or more – IU has just two players who play that many minutes – and each contributes to the stat sheet in his own way.
Penn State’s star sophomores Tony Carr, a guard, and Lamar Stevens, a forward, lead the way in scoring with a combined 33.4 points per game. Reaves holds down the backcourt defensively with his Big Ten-leading 2.4 steals per game.
Sophomore forward Mike Watkins churns out double-doubles regularly, with six on the season and two in a row in Big Ten play. Senior guard Shep Garner provides leadership as one of two seniors on a young team. Garner leads Penn State with nearly three made 3-pointers per game.
Still-improving sophomore class leads the way for Penn State
Carr, Stevens and Watkins made up a freshman trio that each played in all 33 games for Penn State last season. This year, as sophomores, each seems to have taken a step forward.
Carr, who made the Big Ten All-Freshman team last year, is scoring five more points per game as a sophomore and has seen his 3-point field goal percentage rise from 32 percent as a freshman to 49 percent this season. Watkins has also become more efficient, as the big man finds himself second in the Big Ten with a 68-percent field goal percentage.
Stevens, meanwhile, has improved on his scoring and rebounding as well and is coming off a career-best 30-point outing in a win over Northwestern.
Heavy in-state influence on the Penn State roster
Penn State Coach Pat Chambers has done a solid job exemplifying the in-state emphasis on recruiting that Archie Miller wants to establish at IU, though none of Chambers’ four 2018 commits are in-state prospects.
Four of the five Nittany Lions’ starters are from the state of Pennsylvania though, including Carr and Stevens, who headlined a 2016 recruiting class ranked 26th in the country and fourth in the Big Ten by 247Sports. In total, eight players on Penn State’s roster are Pennsylvania natives.
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