NIT Championship Preview: Penn State, in pursuit of history, battles Baylor's bombers
Time and TV: Thurs., Apr. 2, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Shooters are never more dangerous than when they're in a zone. If Penn State is to win its first-ever NIT title on Thursday night in New York, the Nittany Lions must disrupt a pair of Baylor bombers who--if they don't cool off--will become the Bad News Bears for the heroes of Happy Valley.
The game plan is appreciably simple for Ed DeChellis's ballclub as it seeks to claim the most significant achievement in PSU basketball history. The Nittany Lions might have had to focus on Notre Dame Tuesday night, but when they eventually viewed film of Baylor's victory over San Diego State in the first NIT semifinal, they had to notice that coach Scott Drew's team depends on two supreme snipers who can shoot the cover off the ball.
Guards Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn combined to hit 15-of-24 field goal attempts and 9-of-14 3-point shots against the outgunned Aztecs from California. Whenever Jerrells or Dunn got free in transition or used screens to lose defenders, they nailed long-range buckets and sent San Diego State home two days earlier than Steve Fisher's team planned. Baylor forward Kevin Rogers is no slouch, and Penn State can't sleep on him as a third scoring option, but this game boils down to the ability of the Nittany Lions to clamp down on the Jerrells-Dunn duo.
In order to put Baylor's season (and current winning binge) in perspective, it's worth mentioning that the Bears have been playing top-shelf basketball for three solid weeks. The wonder boys from Waco--once buried in the bottom third of the Big 12--have roared down the stretch to transform the trajectory of their season. Baylor rocked Kansas (on March 12) and Texas (March 13) to reach the final of the Big 12 Tournament before falling to a very good Missouri club. The Bears might have missed out on the NCAAs when they couldn't wrap up the championship of their league tournament, but the deep run did get Baylor into the NIT field. (A loss to Kansas in the Big 12 quarters would have spelled "C-I-T" or "C-B-I.")
Once in the NIT, Baylor picked up where it left off. The Bears overcame a double-digit deficit to shoot down Georgetown in round one on March 18. In round two on March 21, BU had to play an 11 a.m. game at Virginia Tech, the scene of a likely letdown that never materialized. Far from sleepy for such an early game, the Bears smothered Tech out of the gate, acquiring a 20-point lead in the first half and never looking back against a Hokie team that woke up on the wrong side of the bed. In the quarterfinals on March 24, Baylor went into another enemy lair and--much like Penn State--pulled out a gritty road victory against a top-seeded SEC foe. Whereas the Nittany Lions busted through to the Big Apple by foiling Florida in Gainesville, the Bears ambushed Auburn to punch their ticket to New York.
All through this NIT run--not just in one game here or there--Jerrells and Dunn have knocked down shots to make Baylor incredibly difficult to defend. In Baylor's four NIT wins, Jerrells is 24-of-43 from the field, while Dunn is a shade better at 24-of-41. Rogers is also shooting better than 50 percent, but as DeChellis and his coaching staff must have seen in film study, Baylor's offense begins with the ballhandling and perimeter movement of two dynamite guards who can't be left for a half-second. One moment of indecision or laziness, and a 3-point shot will tickle the twine. That's the long and short of Penn State's challenge.
If PSU smothers Jerrells and Dunn the way the Lions locked down Notre Dame assassin Kyle McAlarney on Tuesday, the Blue and White--with Joe Paterno and much of Nittany Nation looking on in Madison Square Garden--should definitely find the winner's circle and make history for their program. If they don't, New York will once again receive news of a Bear market in the city where Wall Street resides.
It's time for Penn State to get bullish on defense for one final 40-minute throwdown. If Talor Battle and his perimeter posse can squeeze the life out of Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn, the NCAA snub that so deeply stung this basketball team will evaporate into a loud and lengthy celebration that should dominate the New York night.