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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Penn State

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Gophers try to avoid giving an opponent their first conference win for the second consecutive time

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

In classic Minnesota fashion, after having “righted the ship” as I so eloquently put it a few days ago, the Gophers laid one of their biggest eggs in recent memory, falling to the lowly Illinois Fighting Illini by an astounding 27 points. 27! For reference, the Gophers didn’t even beat North Carolina A&T or Mount St. Mary’s by more than 20 points. Not only that, this was a loss to a Big Ten opponent that was 0-5 in the conference and had lost to the likes of Florida Atlantic already this season. This was not a good team.

What then, does that say about the Gophers? The Illini played great, there’s no doubting that. But just four days after walloping Rutgers at home, Minnesota could barely muster the energy to show up when they desperately needed to take care of business. And if this is a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations, winning a road game against one of the conference’s three worst teams cannot be an either/or proposition. The Gophers took a huge step backwards with that loss and now must play catch up or win a game they shouldn’t to even things up. Those chances are starting to evaporate.

Their game tonight against Penn State looms even larger now. The Nittany Lions come in with a similar look to the Illini. They’re a deceptive 0-7 in the Big Ten, yet still carry peripheral numbers that have them just one spot behind Minnesota in the KenPom rankings. Still, for the Gophers, they need to take care of business at home against a team that hasn’t posted a conference victory in seven tries. A loss here would be devastating.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Penn State Nittany Lions (0-7, 7-11)

What time are they playing?

Saturday, Jan. 19 @ 7:30 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Williams Arena

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, BTN.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes, KTLK 1130-AM/103.5-FM

Tell me more about the opponent.

All-world guard Tony Carr is gone, thankfully, but in his stead junior forward Lamar Stevens has risen to lead the team in scoring, and leads a trio of double-digit scorers averaging 18.1 points per game, a figure which ranks sixth in the conference. A dual threat, Stevens regularly scores in the 20s, can hit threes and pull down rebounds. He’ll be a tough matchup for the Minnesota bigs.

The Nittany Lions are looking for their first conference victory, but the 0-7 B1G record doesn’t tell the whole story. Penn State has played most of the top teams in the conference, including Michigan, Michigan State and Maryland, with many of their losses coming by single digits. In short, they’ve been close but haven’t gotten over the hump.

Still, this isn’t a great team by any means. They’re 1-5 on the road, with their lone victory coming at Duquesne, and have lost by 11 or more points four times this year already.

The Lions are the defending NIT champs, though the momentum they carried into the end of last season hasn’t quite carried over to this year. Head coach Pat Chambers is on the hot seat once again and basically needs to make the tournament if he wants to save his job.

What to Watch For

Amir Coffey bouncing back
Just when we celebrated the arrival of an all-conference Amir Coffey, he goes out against Illinois and has perhaps his worst game of the season. For better or worse, at this point in the season it’s clear that Minnesota will go as far as Coffey takes them. When he has a night like Wednesday, where he was clearly forcing shots and goes 2-13 from the field with only nine points, they are going to have a tough time winning. Was Wednesday an outlier? Coffey was coming off a stretch of games where he was basically unstoppable, so it was frustrating to see such a sharp regression considering the circumstances.

Predictions

KenPom likes Minnesota in this one, giving the Gophers a four-point advantage, 70-66, but something just doesn’t feel right about tonight. Minnesota is a program that hangs its hat on causing mass panic among the fan base, and nothing would be more infuriating than losing to an 0-7 team at home immediately after losing to an 0-5 team on the road. I think Penn State pulls it off.