Following IU’s 68-66 home win against Northwestern on Saturday, IU Coach Archie Miller said he couldn’t imagine playing Big Ten Conference games in January and February because of how competitive the league appears to be.
The Wildcats pushed the Hoosiers all the way in the conference opener, and the reveal of Monday’s new Associated Press rankings featured seven Big Ten teams in the top 25. IU remained out of the rankings, receiving just 13 votes.
But Miller and his team will have an important test against Penn State on Tuesday night in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State dropped its Big Ten Conference opener at Maryland this weekend, but Coach Pat Chambers’ team already has a signature win this season against then-No. 13 Virginia Tech.
Here are three things to know before the Hoosiers and Nittany Lions tip off at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
1. Fans will remember IU’s last trip to State College, and a lot has changed since that game.
The last time IU played a men’s basketball game at Penn State was Jan. 18, 2017. Guard James Blackmon Jr. hit a game-winning three-pointer for the Hoosiers as time expired and forward OG Anunoby played in his final game for IU, as he suffered a knee injury that led to season-ending surgery.
Tom Crean was IU’s head coach during that game.
A lot has changed in the nearly two years since that game. Only three players currently on IU’s roster — juniors forward De’Ron Davis and guard Devonte Green and senior guard Zach McRoberts — played in that game, and none played more than 15 minutes.
On the Penn State side, junior forwards Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins, along with senior guard Josh Reaves, played in the 2017 contest, with Reaves and Stevens both starting that game.
During last season’s 74-70 IU win in Bloomington, Stevens and Watkins combined for 30 points.
The turnover both teams have experienced since they last played at Penn State underscores the youth of both programs.
Reaves and Stevens have started all seven of Penn State’s games this season, but they’ve been joined in the starting lineup each time by three underclassmen — freshman guard Myles Dread and sophomores guard Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar.
IU’s lineups have been more of a mixed bag this season due to injuries, and that theme could continue Tuesday depending on the status of senior forward Juwan Morgan. Morgan was unable to play the final minutes against Northwestern after appearing to hurt his right leg.
Even with Morgan in the game, the Hoosiers struggled to contain Wildcat big man Dererk Pardon, who finished the game with a double-double. This could be a sign of things to come with Penn State as well, as Stevens, who is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, leads the team in scoring with 22.4 points per game and in rebounding with nearly nine per game.
2. The Bryce Jordan Center should be a bit quieter than the last road environment IU played in.
The last time they were on the road, the Hoosiers found themselves overwhelmed by the noise and environment of Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. Granted, the pressing defense of No. 3 Duke also helped forced 13 first-half IU turnovers, but Miller, Morgan and sophomore guard Al Durham admitted postgame the Duke crowd frazzled IU’s players.
That likely won’t happen at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
The arena hasn’t had a crowd larger than 9,060 people so far this season, as only 8,373 showed up for the home win against Virginia Tech. The Nittany Lions are trying to get students to show up to Tuesday’s game, though, offering free nachos before the game as well as Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to students who show up first.
But the Nittany Lions haven’t necessarily needed a raucous home-court advantage to win their home games recently, as they are 3-0 in State College this season and went 15-4 at home during the 2017-18 season, losing only to Wisconsin, Rider University, Minnesota and Michigan.
3. Penn State plays six key players a lot, and everybody else very little.
There are six players for Penn State — the aforementioned five starters and freshman guard Rasir Bolton — who average more than 21 minutes per game. No one else averages more than 16 minutes per contest for the Nittany Lions, and that player averaging 16 minutes played is Watkins, who has only played in Penn State’s most recent two games.
Watkins has also dealt with legal trouble during his time at Penn State, most recently being charged with disorderly conduct Oct. 1. He has also spoken recently about his struggles with mental health issues in high school and at college.
Assuming Watkins plays Tuesday night, this key group of six Nittany Lions demands the Hoosiers’ full attention. The sextet of players have almost 89 percent of Penn State’s points and 79 percent of Penn State’s rebounds this season.
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