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I’m out.

If you aren’t on twitter, I think you should be. I used to be a huge disbeliever too, but it’s actually quite useful and a lot of fun. Because see, if you aren’t on twitter, you wouldn’t realize I’m now blogging for Linebacker-u.com. Why you ask? Because they’re awesome, I’m still running my own show, and they have way more hits.

I now understand that my word means nothing to any of you, if I say I’m not going anywhere. I’m sorry for that but I think you’ll enjoy LB-U.com. It’ll have my basketball expertise, some other people’s basketball expertise, and a whole lot of other news regarding Penn State athletics. Hell, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already read theirs, too.

Anyway, you can still tweet me (lbu_eric) and email me (still raisethecurtains@gmail.com). But all of my content will be over there, starting today. It’s been real.

Crunchtime

The last time I wrote in this here blog, the Nittany Lions were making moves.  In what appeared to be a killer stretch in the conference schedule, the Lions were fighting admirably. They beat MSU and Illinois at home, while damn near beating the league’s elite on the road against OSU and Purdue. MSU and Illinois were good wins at the time, but they’ve lost their sparkle with those teams’ struggles. And close losses don’t count in this sport.

But what really got me into this team was that Wisconsin game. That was a very important game at the time with the Lions sitting 4-4 in the league. PSU overcame an early 13 point deficit and reversed what appeared to be the same old script against the Badgers.

However, the excitement of that monumental victory wore off (hey, when you beat a team for the first time in 8 years, it’s monumental). The Lions were dealt with the roadtrip from hell trying to get to Champaigne for their Illinois game a few days later. They looked predictably jet-lagged and were never able to muster the energy to compete. I’m never one to make excuses, but I’m sorry. After playing that bruiser on Sunday then traveling for 18 hours or whatever absurd time it took to get there (after the detour in Evansville, IN), there’s no way you have the energy to play another 40 minutes of Big Ten basketball. The ugly loss wasn’t a big deal at the time, but Jeff Brooks’ gross injury certainly was. It looked like a dislocated shoulder, which would be 4-6 weeks on the shelf. Season over.

But in the following days before the UM game, the news out of PSU was Jeff Brooks was a freak. There was even talk that he would be available just 5 days after the injury. I didn’t believe it until I went to the game early and was greeted by Mr. Brooks dunking with no limitation. Maybe the season wasn’t over. But Brooks sat out the game, which should’ve been expected.  So PSU decided they were going to piss away the game to Michigan for the 2nd straight year at home. The Lions blew 2 separate double digit leads to get swept by the Wolverines. I’ll never know how that happened but that put DeChellis’ team in what appeared to be an insurmountable hole (that remains to be seen).

They got another opportunity a few days later, as you always do in the Big Ten, to get a good road win against a reeling MSU squad. At the time, MSU had won just 1 of their last 6 games. That one win was an OT squeaker at home against Indiana. In probably the most disappointing performance of the year, the Lions got run out of the building. It was an inexcusable, pathetic effort from this senior-laden team that hinted to us fans that these guys were giving up on the season.  No other way to explain that egg.

Thank God the schedule gave us our healthy dose of Northwestern Wildcats in the next game. It was the only medication to end the 3 game slump. The Lions rolled 65-41 as Talor reached 2,000 career points.

DeChellis says he has his team thinking every remaining game is an NCAA game, which I applaud him for. Because in reality, it is. I still think the ultimate goal to put PSU in the picture is 10-8 in conference. At 6-7, Penn State would need to go 4-1 in their last 5 games to reach that mark. The first game in this remaining stretch was the first matchup of the season with Minnesota, at home on ESPN.  In one of the more interesting ‘tall vs. small’ matchups, Penn State shot 31 threes on their way to a 66-63 squeaker. Talor performed like a desperate senior, hitting 7 treys and 28 points. However, there is no way PSU is hitting 12 treys in their return trip to the Barn in 2 weeks.

So PSU needs 3 of their last 4 games. The schedule is @Wisconsin, @Northwestern, Ohio State, @Minnesota. I can only see Northwestern as a W. Does this Penn State squad seem like they can be one of the few elite teams that can go into the Kohl Center and win today? I mean, Bo’s only lost 6 conference games at home in 10 seasons (out of 82!). KenPom gives PSU a 9% chance. I say that’s very generous. The line is set at 12.

There is no more room for mulligans for this team. They have a great opportunity today to make a bubble statement similar to Nebraska’s yesterday. A sweep against Wisconsin I think will more than make up for the UM sweep and Maine loss. But that’s going to require a perfect game from the Nittany Lions, and probably some cold shooting from the Badgers. Tip’s at 6 EST. Hopefully we see a better game than the last 2 road trips.

Badger off the Back

Finally, an egg was not laid in a big home game (in front of 14,000+). Finally, Ed DeChellis and these seniors beat the Wisconsin Badgers. Finally, this team looks like an NCAA tournament squad. It’s been one hell of a longtime coming, but the Nits out-muscled, out-worked, and out-played the 15th-ranked Badgers yesterday for the biggest victory of the year.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
Wis 53 52 0.98 48.1% 15.1% 25.0% 5.8%
PSU 53 56 1.06 55.0% 18.9% 30.8% 50.0%

It was another tale of two halves, though, as the outcome of the game looked very bleak at halftime. Wisconsin played their usual, grueling style, and PSU was ice cold from the floor. The Badgers jumped out to a 22-9 lead with 7:39 to play on another agonizing bucket at the shot clock buzzer, this time courtesy of a Jordan Taylor 3 at the top of the key. DJ Jackson and Jermaine Marshall hit some big shots to keep the Lions in the game, but it just seemed a lot like the 2009 Wisconsin home game all over again (that the NIT champs lost 54-44). Even when the Nits looked like they were gonna get a stop, Wisky would get the offensive board or draw a foul. It can be really frustrating to watch, especially when you know Wisconsin is going to waste another 30 seconds of game clock.  The halftime numbers were ugly, and it would’ve been a lot worse if Wisconsin didn’t turn it over 6 times.

However, PSU came out fearless and stormed back. They went on an 18-6 run to start the half, taking a 38-35 lead. This was due to Talor Battle getting on track and Tim Frazier having a positive impact. Tim had a rough start to the game, getting burned on defense and turning it over on offense. He only played 8 minutes, then sat (largely due to Marshall’s effectiveness). But when he was in for this stretch, TB and TF were effective penetrating against Wisconsin’s defense. Talor had a couple nice finishes around the tin, especially a nice off hand flip high off the glass over Jon Leuer. Tim also had two nice drives, one resulting in a double-clutch layup at the end of the shot clock, while the other resulting in a mid-air pass between two defenders for an Andrew Jones dunk.

The two plays that really put it away for PSU on the offensive end down the stretch, IMO, were Jeff Brooks’ trey right in the face of Leuer, and Battle’s drive and dish to Jones for a layup with 1:15 remaining (extended the lead to 6).

Wisconsin was struggling on offense in the 2nd half, as well. I was disappointed with how little credit Bo Ryan gave the PSU defense, pretty much saying the Badgers missed some easy shots. Mike Bruesewitz missed a couple jumpers and Jordan Taylor missed a contested layup near the end of the game (that would’ve cut a 48-44 PSU lead to 2), but the Nittany Lions did a great job of closing down the interior and forcing Wisconsin into difficult jumpers. Jon Leuer went 0-4 from 3, but I didn’t think he got any particularly easy looks. Before the desperation heaves started, Wisconsin was 6-20 from the field in the 2nd half, they finished 9-28 (32.1%). PSU was 12-19 (63.2%) and Talor Battle scored 20 of his 22 points in the period. Wisconsin only shot 3 foul shots for the game, which symbolized their inability to get it inside against PSU’s changing zone/man looks on defense. It was nice to see Talor have one of his best defensive performances of his career, shutting down Taylor in the second half (only 4 points) after he torched the Lions last year at the Kohl Center.

The Lions sit now at 5-4, tied for fourth in the conference. They only have two remaining games against the clear top 3 of the conference (@ Wisky, OSU). They still have yet to face Minnesota, a team who has looked vulnerable without Al Nolen (who is now out for the year), and Northwestern, a team PSU seems to own. They have two road trips to Illinois and Michigan State (two arenas these guys have won in before), along with a remaining home game against Michigan. The Lions have to keep winning to stay in the hunt. The main concerns about the Lions’ resume are the lack of OOC quality wins and road wins. Clearly the OOC is in the past, but PSU will get some benefit of the doubt for having a respectable SOS (especially since everyone on the bubble is going to have holes in their profiles). Remember, PSU was punished in 2008-2009 not for not beating anybody in the OOC, but for SCHEDULING nobody in the OOC. And as far as road wins, if PSU gets to 10-8, they’ll have won at least one road game, possibly 2 (unless they beat potential 1-seed OSU). That likely won’t be a problem if PSU wins as much as they should to have earned a bid.

Bottomline is, this team has a legit chance, but it’s silly to throw out set win totals just yet. It totally depends on the bubble, which will be in fluctuation until Selection Sunday. Who knows how many of the now 37 at-large bids will be available. The number changes drastically during Championship week. Just please don’t think that if this team finished 16-13 or 17-12, they wouldn’t be in the conversation. Your total W-L record means absolutely nothing.

Still Standing

I must admit, I was worried about last night’s game. I even took Iowa, who was getting 7.5. For a while there, it looked like I might be right, as the Nits came out flat after the week off. But the seniors were able to right the ship and led the Nits to a workman-like 65-51 victory. All that matters is the W.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
Iowa 57 51 0.90 44.1% 19.3% 30.0% 17.6%
PSU 57 65 1.14 58.5% 24.6% 42.9% 23.4%

Talor Battle got back on track, as he usual does against the weaker defenses of the conference. He scored 23 points on 8-13 shooting and extended his streak at the foul line to 24 straight (and 82.2% in conference play). He is now 88 points shy of 2,000 for his career (likely to come at home against Northwestern in a few weeks). He is also 226 points away from Jesse Arnelle for the leading scorer in program history. If we make the postseason and he stays healthy, he’ll likely get there. Jeff Brooks continued his All Big Ten campaign, scoring 22 points on 9-17 shooting and maintaining the block parade with 3 more swats (I mean, look where he comes from to make this block). Drew Jones had a near double-double with 9 points and 10 rebounds.

As a team, it needs to be noted that they have dominated the boards the last 5 games, after getting humiliated in the home Purdue game. It continued last night as they posted a +40% offensive rebounding percentage for the third straight game. Also, how about this team from the free throw line? 44-46 (95.6%) the last 4 games. That is unheard of for good foul shooting teams, let alone this PSU squad who has been notoriously bad over the years. These are the little things that will make the difference in games.

So this sets up a pretty big showdown with Wisconsin on Saturday for another Coaches vs. Cancer clash. PSU has just survived their gauntlet, and they were able to put the heartbreak of OSU and PU behind them. They now stand at an even 4-4 in the conference. This next 6 game stretch will make or break these Lions. They have a legitimate chance to win all 6 of them (although the first 2 are going to be the toughest, IMO). If the Lions go 4-2 or better, they’ll be pretty close to reaching their goal of the NCAA Tournament. If they don’t, they’re gonna have to pull off some shockers at the end of the year (last 4 games = 3 road trips and a home date with Ohio State).

As far as Wisconsin, they’re going to be tough as nails, as usual. Ed still has yet to get off his schnide against Bo Ryan. Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor form one of the best duos in the nation. The Lions are going to have to defend as well as they can – hopefully limiting the # of breakdowns because the Badgers will take advantage. The improved frontline dominance has to continue as well. Yes, when you make over 60% of your 2’s and rebound over 40% of your own misses, you are dominating. I’m looking for DJ Jackson to be an X-factor. Battle against Taylor, Brooks against Leuer, Jones against Nankivil are all fairly even match-ups. We need DJ to get free against Mike Bruesewitz/Tim Jarmusz. Any and all bench production would be a very welcome sight, as well. I just have a gut feeling that Billy Oliver is going to have a small ‘breakout’ performance very soon. I think Wisconsin and their slow pace might be a good matchup for it. I know Billy’s really been struggling, but some people just don’t see how intelligent the guy is on the court. His shot is way too pure to be shooting as poorly as he has been.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, go to the game. This team deserves the support. Talor Battle is the best athlete this school has had since Michael Robinson, he deserves an audience. Also, be sure to check out my Q/A session with Wisconsin blog – Bucky’s 5th Quarter.

What Transpired the Last Week

Going into the Michigan State game last weekend, I thought PSU had a chance to win. Michigan State has clearly shown that this year’s team is still living off of last year’s rep. While it’s mostly the same squad, they just have not played very well this year and they should not be ranked. Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks played very well, Battle hit a big shot late, MSU had their usual woes (foul shooting – 10-20 for 50%), and PSU escaped at home with a big W.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
MSU 61 62 1.02 47.3% 18.0% 34.2% 36.4%
PSU 61 66 1.08 44.7% 9.8% 39.5% 40.4%

Going into the Illinois game Tuesday, I thought PSU had a chance to win. Despite Illinois’ torrid shooting and fast start, they have always been soft inside. We have matched up well with them, and that’s why this has been the closest Big Ten series over the last 4 years. I knew the Illini’s blistering shooting had to regress towards the mean, and that usually happens on the road in conference. Lo and behold, PSU played great defense, Talor made ridiculous shots, Drew Jones showed up for the 2nd straight game, and PSU stole a 2nd big upset in 2 games.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
ILL 60 55 0.92 48.9% 25.0% 14.8% 23.9%
PSU 60 57 0.95 41.3% 16.7% 29.4% 26.9%

Going into yesterday’s game, I thought PSU had no chance. With these past 2 wins and the quick 3-2 start in conference play, NCAA tourney talks crept up once again. That is still the measuring stick for this season, but I’m cautiously not buying it quite yet. We had two great wins, but they were against squads that we have had success over the last few years. This group of seniors have gone 6-7 against the Illini and Michigan State. Other than a 37 point loss to the Spartans back in 2007-2008, the average margin of those games for the Nits has been -0.5 points. Nothing special, but we can play with and beat those guys. Compare that record to the record against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Purdue – 1-16, with an average margin of -13.1 points. If PSU wants to go dancing, they can’t take 6 automatic L’s in conference play.

They already were not competitive in their first home bout with the Boilers this year, but yesterday’s gutsy effort was a clear signal that this is not the same team that lost to Maine 3 weeks ago. Those two victories seem to have given this team a newfound confidence. I thought PSU would have a slight chance to pull their third upset in a row with the way the Buckeyes had been playing, but with Duke’s loss, an opportunity for #1 was at stake. And the Nits pushed the Bucks to the brink to earn it.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
PSU 57 66 1.16 60.0% 24.6% 40.0% 28.9%
OSU 57 69 1.21 58.8% 8.8% 19.2% 25.5%

Clearly, this game was lost on the defensive end and with turnovers. Disappointing since it wasted such a tremendous effort on the glass. PSU did what they could to slow down freshman phenom Jared Sullinger, forcing other OSU players to beat them. Yesterday, it was Aaron Craft, the true freshman PG, who scored a career-high 19 points with 7 assists and great defense on Talor Battle (5-17 from the field, 1-10 from 3).  But despite Talor’s woes, the rest of the team played out of their minds. Tim Frazier had his best offensive game this year with 11 points (4-4 from the floor), 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. DJ with 19, Jeff with 11, and Drew Jones with 8 points and a fantastic job keeping Sully off the glass. The rest of the team shot 20-28 for an eFG% of 76.7%.

The inability to get some key defensive stops down the stretch was certainly frustrating, but this is the 2nd best offense in D-1. I didn’t really like the lack of help for Billy Oliver on Sullinger down the stretch after Andrew Jones fouled out on a pathetic call (the officiating all around was excruciating). It wasn’t particularly exciting to see Craft bury open jumper and after open jumper. But PSU picked their poison and sold their souls to having Craft beat them, and he did.

It’s just frustrating because this would’ve been a win that could’ve gone a long way to curing the non-conference stumbles for the Tournament resume. This would’ve been the Nits golden ticket – a road win versus a potential 1 seed. As long as the team gets over the emotional letdown and responds, I think this team is still alive. Now the Nits sit at 3-3 through a third of the conference season. If they want to go to the tournament, they will most likely need to get to 11 total Big Ten wins. Whether that means going 9-9 and winning 2 in the BTT, or 10-8 +1, or hell, just 11-7 in the conference would make their RPI in the low 30s. Is that going to happen? Not very likely, but this team has a winning ‘it’ factor, just like the 08-09 team. They just went toe-to-toe on the road against the likely league champion, a team they have barely even been competitive with in-league the last 5 years. The light bulb is on and this team is ready to make noise in the league. Whether or not it’s too late remains to be seen.

Purdue 83 Penn St 68

There was a lot of unexpected performances in an expected outcome last night at the predictably empty BJC. Purdue ran away from the Nits in the 2nd half with good defense and good offense. However, it didn’t come from E’Twaun Moore for the Boilers, who had by far his worst outing of the season (4 points on 2-10 shooting). JuJuan Johnson had his typical efficient outing (15 points, 15 boards, 5 blocks) but even he wasn’t the leading scorer for Purdue. Ryne Smith and Lewis Jackson combined for 37 points on 11 shots against another forgettable defensive outing from the Nits.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
PSU 72 68 0.94 45.1% 15.3% 20.0% 32.8%
PU 72 83 1.15 52.7% 16.7% 37.8% 74.5%

This was actually PSU’s fastest game of the season at 72 possessions. Part of that was because of the 51 fouls that were called that really made the 2nd half tough to watch. Some was inexplicably PSU’s doing at the end of the game despite still being down by 11-14, but most of it came from Hightower and his crew. Purdue shot 41 free throws, while PSU shot 20.

Offensively, PSU did a great job taking care of the ball against the Boilers, but that was about it. They didn’t shoot well, particularly Battle who was hounded all night by Lewis Jackson, Kelsey Barlow, and Terone Johnson. Talor finished with 18 points, but on 22 shots (6-22).  The star of the game was easily Jermaine Marshall, who came out of nowhere for 18 points in 28 minutes. This coming from a guy with a TOTAL of 24 minutes and 12 points on the year. He exploded against easily the Lions’ toughest opponent to date, which has left everyone wondering what the heck the guy did to be buried on the bench all year. He showcased some slick spin moves on his fearless drives to the basket, but also showed the ability to hit the open 3. It was the perfect display of everything I had been hearing about his game the last 2 years. Please play him more, Ed. At some point, proving yourself in practice means nothing when you prove yourself like this in your first Big Ten game.

I was disappointed by DJ’s 4 shots, but then again, this proves the point. Everyone has been bitching for more production from ‘the other guys’, so one of the big 3 is going to suffer with less shots. Andrew Jones made 3 jumpers and Jermaine obviously did his thing. And how about some love for Jeff Brooks. The much-maligned senior is off to a fantastic conference start. After last night’s 15 and 10 performance, he is now averaging 18 points (on 71% shooting) 7.7 RPG, and 2 BPG in conference play. It doesn’t look like the glimpses seen in the non-con were flukes.

Defensively, the Nits got burned again for 1.15 PPP. But there were at least some good signs, particularly Moore’s off night. The Lions actually forced some turnovers and got some run outs (14 fast break points). I missed the first half of this game, but obviously Ryne Smith going 5-5 from 3 is terrible, but the 2 I saw were contested, tough shots. Kid is just shooting very well right now. It’ll be interesting to see how well he shoots the rest of the way. Same with Lewis Jackson who hit some very difficult, fade-away jumpers. Purdue dominated the boards, but sometimes that didn’t even yield points. For instance, one possession early in the 2nd half, the Boilers got credited with 4 offensive boards but they didn’t score.

Probably the most disturbing issue for me was this team just already looks fatigued. It might be from the quick turn-around from Sunday’s game, and it also might be tough to play in front of an empty arena, but it’s going to be interesting to see how this team holds up physically throughout the rest of the season. They don’t have much time to rest as the Spartans come to town Saturday at 1:00 PM. Tickets are not included in the student season package but they are free to all students.

 

Purdue Preview

But first…a quick recap of the Nittany Lions’ 76-69 loss to the Wolverines.

Y’know, the Lions like making blogging easy. Why did PSU lose? They didn’t play defense, which has pretty much been the key to every game this year against big time opponents. It was a total team effort. They were way too quick to provide help to drivers, leaving numerous known shooters wide open. They were never able to get that key stop in the 2nd half to stop the Michigan comeback and extend their lead (that should’ve been bigger with how well the offense played in the 1st half, but defensive breakdowns prevented that). It’s so incredibly frustrating to watch. Y’know it’s bad when enemy bloggers are not giving as much credit to their own team because the opposing defense was that bad.

The defense negated a great effort from Talor Battle (31 points), while Jeff Brooks and DJ Jackson provided other scoring options (combined 31). The offense was just fine, although it was clear the team lacked juice at the end of the 2nd half. The price you pay for having such a short bench.

Team Poss Score PPP eFG% TO% OReb% FT Rate
PSU 60 69 1.15 52.8% 10.0% 30.0% 33.3%
UM 60 76 1.27 66.0% 16.7% 15.0% 29.8%

I always feel the need to note that 1 – UM’s OReb% is so low is because they shot so well and 2 – UM’s TO% is low to begin with, but most, if not all of those were unforced. The 1.27 PPP was the 2nd worst showing by the Nits defense this season (Ole Miss – 1.42 PPP).

So onto the next one. The Nittany Lions face a pretty brutal schedule the next 2 weeks with 5 straight ranked opponents, starting and ending with the 10th ranked Boilermakers of Purdue. The Boilers come in after demolishing UM 80-57 and beating NW 82-69, well on their way to being successful without Robbie Hummel.

It’s hard to imagine the Lions being competitive in this one. Purdue knows only 3 players can score for PSU and they will be on them all game long. Unless Battle gets in the zone, or the nonexistant role players start proving to be viable options, this team is going to struggle to score. And when that happens, all hope is lost because I have no idea how to get this team to D it up.

Who’s going to slow down All-American candidate JuJuan Johnson? He’s abused Andrew Jones enough, maybe Billy Oliver will get his turn. And Purdue doesn’t have a shortage of 3-pt bombers. E’Twaun Moore is having his best season yet at 20.4 PPG and 45.5% from 3. After the 1-2 punch, Purdue has many options for more scoring. Recently it has been Ryne Smith, who has scored 30 points in PU’s first 2 conference games. Moore, Smith, D.J. Byrd, and freshman Terone Johnson all can hit the 3.

Purdue has much more depth, ability, and defense. I don’t PSU overcoming any of this to pull out the W tonight. But stranger things have happened. I’d expect Purdue to win by double digits.

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