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Opponent Preview: Mississippi State takes on the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Final Four of the NIT.

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Let’s take a deeper look at the Penn State Nittany Lions

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Mississippi State Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Date: Tuesday, March 27th

Time: 8:00pm CST on ESPN

Location: Madison Square Garden (New York City)

Event: No. 4 Mississippi State (25-11) vs. No. 4 Penn State (24-13)

Penn State is a proud school with plenty of athletic tradition. Fortunately for Mississippi State, the Nittany Lions have had much more success on the gridiron than on the hardwood. As a SEC fan I assumed that Penn State had a strong basketball tradition just because, well, they are Penn State. However, since the 2000-2001 season, Penn State only has three 20 win seasons. With one of those coming this year. This doesn’t exactly scream national power. Historically, Penn State has 9 Overall NCAA Appearances with their latest appearance in 2011. They made one Final Four way back in 1954. In terms of NIT success, the Lions actually won the whole tournament in 2009 beating Baylor in the final.

The Tipoff

Penn State overachieved this season. Most pundits had Penn State in the middle to bottom of the pack in the BIG 10 for their preseason predictions. Having all of their starters come back to this year’s team was huge. But many people were skeptical because of a lack of depth and reliance on a trio of sophomores (Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins). The trio has delivered this season. Penn State’s season was highlighted by three wins over a ranked Ohio State team. However, the success against the Buckeyes did not translate for the rest of the season. The Lions lost their other ranked match-ups but were in most of those ballgames late. Penn State got hot in the BIG 10 tournament, beating Northwestern and Ohio State before losing to Purdue in the Quarterfinals. In the NIT, Penn State has continued it’s hot play and beaten Temple, Notre Dame, and Marquette.

Cast of Characters

Mississippi State has to slow down Tony Carr if they have a chance at winning. The second leading scorer in the BIG 10 is having a great season for the Nittany Lions. On top of being the team leader in scoring (19.5 PPG), he is first in assists (4.7 APG) and 3 point percentage (.437). Carr did show some weakness down the stretch in the NIT Quarterfinals against Marquette. In the last 30 seconds, Carr went 5 of 8 from the free throw line. In a closer game that could be the difference in securing a comeback.

Lamar Stevens is the other player that State will have to contain. The sophomore hit his career high of 30 against Marquette in the NIT Quarterfinals. Stevens is playing his best basketball of the year right now. Although he doesn’t lead the Nittany Lions in any major scoring statistic, he is the all around basketball player that every team needs.

To complement the two headed monster in Carr and Stevens, the Nittany Lions have Shep Garner and Josh Reaves. Senior Shep Garner set two different records last week. His 112 made 3s are a Penn State single season record. Garner’s four year career at Penn State resulted in 73 wins, the most for a four year span since Penn State joined the BIG 10. Garner’s outside range will be difficult to contain. Junior Josh Reaves has been very dependable in his career for Penn State. However, the past four games for Reaves have been up and down. Reaves had quite possibly his worst game of the season against Purdue in the Lions last game of the BIG 10 tournament. He was 0-9 from the field with 0 points. Reaves followed that performance with two of his best games this year scoring 19 and 18 points respectively. Reaves only had 3 points in their win over Marquette.

What to Watch For

Penn State will be without All Big Ten Defensive Team player Mike Watkins. Watkins is still recovering from a knee injury suffered back in late February. The big man was a key member for the Nittany Lions this year. Watkins was the team leader in rebounds per game (8.9) and blocks per game (2.3). He was the third leading scorer with 12.1 PPG. His replacement is freshman John Harrar. The first year player is averaging 1.3 PPG and 1.5 RPG this year, obviously a huge decrease in production from that position. Can the Bulldogs drive the lane and take advantage of a lack of presence in the paint?

New York City is sort of like a home away from home for the Nittany Lions squad. They played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn back in November beating Pittsburgh and losing to Texas A&M. And just three weeks ago Penn State participated in the annual BIG 10 Tournament at Madison Square Garden reaching the quarterfinals. Penn State has had success in the Big Apple. They are familiar with the Garden. Will that translate into gameday success vs. the Bulldogs?

Best Case

The Bulldogs replicate the Louisville game and win easily. Quinndary Weatherspoon and Nick Weatherspoon lead the team in scoring, both earning double doubles. Lamar Peters does his job, hits a few 3’s, gets a lot of assists, and continues to draw attention leaving others open. Abdul Ado makes his presence known in the paint leading the team in rebounds and blocks. Tyson Carter, Aric Holman, and Xavian Stapleton all contribute quality minutes and pad the lead.

Worst Case

The Bulldog’s magic runs out and are exhausted by an underrated Penn State defense. Tony Carr leads the Lions in scoring and rebounds, easily earning a double double. The Bulldogs cannot contain Shep Garner as he is hot from outside. Utility player Lamar Stevens continues his hot play and the better Josh Reaves comes to play and hits some clutch 3s. Penn State leads from the tip and never allows Mississippi State to get close in a fairly easy win for the Lions.

Prediction

It took me a long time to believe in this team. Shame on me. This Bulldog squad is for real and Mississippi State’s season lasts a little longer.

Mississippi State: 72

Penn State: 68