NIT Preview: Penn State tries to keep up with the Joneses at Florida
Time and TV: Tues., March 24, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
As the song says about New York, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. For the Penn State men's basketball team, one more victory will lead to New York City and a berth in next week's NIT Tournament semifinals. Yes, the Nittany Lions have to go down to Gainesville and knock off the Florida Gators if they want to visit the Big Apple, but as coach Ed DeChellis prepares for his first SEC opponent of the season, he will see an opponent that has its share of weaknesses.
It's true that Coach Billy Donovan's ballclub owns a No. 1 seed in its NIT subregional, but one can identify a few teams that would have given Penn State more trouble at this stage of the tournament. Notre Dame would have been a load for the Lions, with Luke Harangody owning the paint. Virginia Tech's shooters and scorers aren't just talented, but long, and that would have made it very difficult for PSU's perimeter players to operate. Saint Mary's--still in the tournament but on the opposite side of the NIT bracket--has an inside-outside mix that would have been very imposing for the Blue and White. All in all, drawing Florida in the NIT quarterfinals is a decent matchup for Penn State, especially since post player Jamelle Cornley--day-to-day with a re-aggravated shoulder injury--is certain to be at less than full strength if he does manage to play.
Why are the Gators beatable, even with Penn State's limitations in the paint? Very simply, Florida missed the NCAA Tournament because of a profoundly porous defense. A late-season slide that featured losses to Mississippi State, Tennessee and Auburn was the result of a defense that offered little resistance to an attacking team. All three of those teams--the Bulldogs, Volunteers and Tigers--repeatedly dumped the ball down into the low post, established an interior game, and then found kick-outs for threes. Donovan--after winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007--has not been able to get through to a new crop of players, and impress upon them the importance of defending doggedly. That's exactly the kind of team Penn State can handle on the road.
If there's one virtue DeChellis has instilled in the 2009 Nittany Lions, it's hunger. Penn State lacks imposing size and longstanding basketball tradition, so this team needed--and found--a junkyard-dog mentality at both ends of the floor, especially late in games. Only by outfighting and outworking opponents has this team managed to win 24 games, the second-highest total in school history. With one more desperate and determined performance, Florida could be foiled in Gainesville.
The key to this game is really rather simple: Will Penn State be able to play so ruthlessly and forcefully--as we've seen in a number of NCAA Tournament games over the past weekend, particularly in the second round--that Florida will give way? Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle need to drive to the basket and make the Gators chase on defense. Without dribble penetration, PSU's 3-point game won't materialize. Florida has to be punched in the mouth first; then its defense can be softened up for a perimeter-based attack.
While the Lions' guards will have to set the tone, it's just as true that the Blue and White must continue to receive the balanced production that has characterized their run to the NIT quarters. Andrew Jones III, fresh off his first double-double of the year, must grab a lot more rebounds and fill the gap left by Cornley's injury. Elsewhere in the lineup, freshman Chris Babb needs to maintain an active role on offense and nail long-distance shots when Battle and Pringle set up drive-and-dish situations.
On defense, Penn State is fortunate that the Gators are a guard-based team that likes to shoot the three. Battle's matchup with Florida's Nick Calathes is worth the price of admission in its own right, while Pringle will have his hands full with UF's other guard, Walter Hodge. Penn State's defense has the chops to hang with the Gators; as long as the Lions can make Florida a one-and-done team by closing down on the defensive boards, they have a very good chance.
The formula is clear enough; at this late stage of a season, it's all about execution and performance. Penn State has the ingredients needed to cook up a recipe for success on the road. As long as the likes of Andrew Jones and Chris Babb can fill their complementary roles and take pressure off Talor Battle, a plane ticket to New York could very well be punched.