Unfortunately league rules say that the Gophers can't just end the season now and head to the NCAA Tournament and have to finish out their schedule, and as such they will welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to Williams on Saturday, a game that just got much more interesting with Penn State's home win over Michigan last night. The Nittany Lions show signs of a team coming together with several close calls leading up to this one (a 2-pt loss to Iowa, 8-pt loss at Michigan, and a 5-pt loss at Illinois) so the Gophers can't overlook this one - not that they could anyway.
The Nittany Lions beat Michigan mainly on the strength of great 3-point shooting (10-20), Michigan's poor 3-point shooting (5-20), and forcing a lot of turnovers (15). These are not things Penn State usually does well, ranking 321st in the country in 3-pt shooting (29.1%), 217th in opponent's 3-point shooting (34.5%), and 286th in forcing turnovers (18% of opp. possessions). It sounds like a big fluke, but looking at their three games prior they've made major strides in all three of these categories, and considering the Gophers struggle defending the three and turn the ball over as if they hate it, I feel a bit concerned.
Penn State plays just seven guys, and they mainly rely on two guards - D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall to supply most of the scoring with both averaging north of 15 points per game and accounting for almost exactly 50% of the team's scoring this year (50.4% to be exact). Both guys fit the chucker mold - high shot attempts, low percentages. Newbill is fourth in the league in FGA despite hitting just 41%, while Marshall is 7th and knocks down 39%. Three-pointers don't get much better, with Marshall again 7th in attempts despite just a 33% success rate. Newbill, to his credit, can't hit the three (29%) but also has about a third as many attempts as Marshall. Newbill also has the ability to pass the ball, ranking fourth in the conference with 4.1 assists per game, and rather than settling for jumpers like Marshall mainly does, Newbill attacks the rim and can draw fouls. Although neither is especially terrifying, either one can get hot (Marshall was 6-10 on threes vs. Michigan) and carry a team.
The complementary players all fill a specific role. Ross Travis, who the Gophers didn't need, is a horrific shooter who shoots way too many jump shots, but is a terrific rebounder who will probably annoy you at least once in the game. Sasa Borovnjak is your dopey foreign guy who hangs out in the lane all day but still only gets three rebounds per game. Brandon Taylor is the designated shooter (as much as their can be one with Newbill and Marshall involved) who sits outside and shoots threes all day (second on the team in 3PA) despite only hitting 31% and being 6-7, and Nick Colella is your annoying little walk-on guard dude. Travis, Borovnjak, and Taylor have all had semi-big games (although Taylor hasn't hit double figures since early January) but none of them should be able to do much against the Gophers.
Penn State has two ways to win this game: get crazy hot from three, which would have seemed impossible if it hadn't just happened last night, or catch the Gophers coming out flat, resting on their laurels after the big win against Indiana. I suspect the latter rather than the former to be the biggest danger, but there are a couple factors that I think mitigate that risk. First, Penn State is just as likely to come out flat and content after winning their first game in Big Ten play against a terrific opponent and then having to go on the road. Second, it's senior night day! The one game in a season when you can count on your team coming out fired up and playing with total emotion. No chance the Gophers come out flat.
I think the most likely scenario is the Gophers come out fired up and ready to play, get a bunch of easy buckets, and push Penn State around until they realize they're completely out of their element, leading to a pretty easy Gopher W.
Minnesota 77, Penn State 53