MBB Preview: Nebraska

Story posted January 12, 2018 in Sports, CommRadio by By Zach Kaplan

Penn State (12-6, 2-3 Big Ten) continues conference play on Friday, when they host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-6, 3-2 B1G) at the Bryce Jordan Center. These two teams met twice last season, and Nebraska beat the Nittany Lions 82-66 at home on Feb. 14, while Penn State knocked the Cornhuskers out of the Big Ten Tournament with a 76-67 win on March 8. Both teams will play each other again in the regular season finale on Feb. 25 in Lincoln.

In Penn State head coach Patrick Chamber’s seventh season, it seems like much of the same from the previous six. A season that started with considerable promise, which included a 5-0 start, has slipped into three losses in the past five games.

Many expected a more mature team on and off the court, and that remains to be seen as the Nittany Lions continue to lose close games on the court, while losing key players at times off the court. Junior guard Josh Reaves did not travel to Indiana, as the team cited “academic reasons” for his absence, and sophomore Mike Watkins was suspended for the season opener for undisclosed reasons.

Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers have looked like a formidable Big Ten team. They have wins in five of their last six games, with their only loss on the road against Purdue, who was ranked No. 13 at the time. They come into Happy Valley off the heels of a 63-59 win over Wisconsin at home on Monday.

They have had the same starting lineup for each game this season, one of only five Division I programs that can attest to that. Junior James Palmer Jr. (15.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG), junior Isaac Copeland (12.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and junior Glynn Watson Jr. (11.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG) all average double figures for the Cornhuskers. Senior Evan Taylor (7.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG) and sophomore Jordy Tshimanga (3.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG) round out the starting lineup.

Palmer (Miami) and Copeland (Georgetown) each transferred to Nebraska, and so far the transition has been fruitful for both players. Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, who is entering his sixth year in charge of the Cornhuskers, has built this team into a Big Ten contender.

Key contributors off the bench for the Cornhuskers include senior Duby Okeke (2.2 RPG), freshman Anton Gill (9.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG), freshman Thomas Allen (4.3 PPG, 1.1 RPG) and sophomore Isaiah Roby (6.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG).

Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions return all five starters from a year ago. Sophomore guard Tony Carr is averaging 18.9 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest. He has established himself as one of the top guards in the conference this season, but many are questioning his ability to help lead this team in crunch time.

The Nittany Lions are expected to have Reaves (10.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG) back in the lineup, a player they dearly missed in the Indiana loss. Senior guard Shep Garner (10.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG) has also played well at times in the backcourt for Penn State. Reaves is a tremendous defender, who leads the team so far with 38 steals.

While Garner has been a contributor in each season with the Nittany Lions, he is a very streaky shooter. He has struggled mightily in the last four games, scoring in the single digits in each contest while not shooting above 50 percent. He has to pick up the slack if the Nittany Lions want to get back in the Big Ten race. 

The front court combination of sophomore Lamar Stevens and Watkins have played well down the stretch but will need to be better to start coming away with conference wins. Stevens (12.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG) had 20 points against Indiana earlier this week.

Watkins (11.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG) has been a reliable big man for Penn State, really carving a role for himself. With 55 blocks on the season, Watkins is one of the top big men in the Big Ten.

Key contributors off the bench for the Nittany Lions include sophomore guard Nazeer Bostick (5.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG), freshman guard Jamari Wheeler (3.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and junior forward Satchel Pierce (2.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG).

This is a game Penn State should win at home, but nothing is a given with this year’s team. If Chambers wants to continue coaching this team, these are the games he can’t afford to lose. The home team has won the last seven games between these two teams, so one would hope the Nittany Lions can defend their home court.

Zach Kaplan is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism with a double minor in history and Spanish. To contact him, email him at zachkaplan5@gmail.com.