WEST LAFAYETTE – What kind of team will Penn State be today?
That could be the most important question in determining whether the Boilermakers can coast to a third straight Big Ten win or whether they'll find themselves in a battle for 40 minutes.
As I write this, Purdue is on the court warming up, but the Nittany Lions have not yet emerged from the locker room. That's somewhat fitting. Penn State has not played since Dec. 30 because of a coronavirus outbreak within its program. Today's visitors have had their last four games postponed and it's unclear whether they'll be at full strength today. Big Ten rules require that players who test positive sit out for at least 17 days.
Purdue coach Matt Painter pointed out that there are two distinct possibilities for what type of Penn State team shows up. It could be a depleted, rusty group that is struggling to get its legs underneath it or it could be a hungry, excited squad that has the type of energy typically reserved for the first game of the season. Of course, the reality could also be anywhere in between those poles, as well. We just won't know until we see the Nittany Lions' lineup and the game gets underway. Those unknowns made it somewhat difficult for Purdue to gameplan for the matchup this afternoon. When it's at full strength, Penn State plays an up-tempo, attacking style on offense that loves to move the ball and hoists a lot of 3s. The Nittany Lions are 20th in the country in made 3-pointers at 10.1 per game and they make 37.6% as a team from beyond the 3-point line. Leading scorer Izaiah Brockington, a 6-foot-4 guard, is also the team's best shooter from long range, hitting 52.9% of his 3s. After nearly three weeks off, Penn State could change up its strategy or it could stick with its identity. It's another unknown that will force the Boilermakers to be flexible.
What Purdue knows for sure is that it should be able to pound the ball inside this afternoon. Penn State is an undersized team, even with its entire roster available. Forward John Harrar is 6-9, 240 pounds and plenty physical, but he likely isn't a match for Trevion Williams by himself, especially the way Williams has played the last few weeks. The Boilermakers will probably try to get the ball to the junior big man down low early and often to force the Nittany Lions to decide whether to send a double-team, opening up passing opportunities for Williams, or to let him attack Harrar one-on-one repeatedly. Throwing the ball inside to the preseason All-Big Ten big man early could have the added benefit of getting Williams in rhythm from the get-go. He's had two straight games in which he was quiet in the first half before exploding in the second period. Painter wants to see him put together a 40-minute performance today.
The Purdue coach also wants to see his team play better on defense than it did against Indiana on Thursday. In Painter's estimation, the Boilermakers weren't particularly good against the Hoosiers and only won because IU missed a lot of free throws and some open outside shots. The Boilers need to do a better job at keeping the ball out of the lane and staying out of rotations, which Penn State can certainly punish when its offense is humming.
Purdue is back at Mackey Arena for the first time in more than three weeks, but Painter has emphasized that playing back at home does not guarantee success. The Boilermakers could really use a victory today before taking on a pair of ranked opponents this week in No. 21 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan. While the Boilermakers should have several advantages in today's matchup, it's unlikely to be a gimme and they could suffer a significant setback if they don't come out ready to play.