Penn State basketball: The bigger No. 2 seed Texas stands, the harder it'll fall
After Funk’n up Texas A&M on Thursday, Penn State will try to complete a 2-step into its first Sweet 16 in 22 years Saturday evening when it takes on Midwest Region No. 2 seed Texas.
The Longhorns (27-8) will tip off as 5.5-point favorites, because oddsmakers and most bettors can’t quite buy the Nittany Lions’ story, compelling as it may be.
This can’t keep happening, right? The clock has to strike midnight at some point for this mishmash of former mid-major nobodies. Right?
The Aggies, runners-up in the SEC regular-season and tournament competitions, were supposed to harass Penn State into turnovers with their tough, quick guards. They were supposed to disrupt the Lions’ offense in a way Big Ten teams could not. A&M, the No. 7 seed in the regional, was considered under-seeded by the bracketology pundits. Then the Lions posted a postseason-low for turnovers and went 13-of-22 from 3-point range while running away with a 76-59 victory.
The Longhorns, on paper, present even greater challenges.
After finishing 2nd to Kansas in the Big 12 regular season race, Texas destroyed the Jayhawks 76-56 for the conference tournament title a week ago. It took down Colgate 81-61 on Thursday to set up its meeting with the Nittany Lions. Ranked No. 5 in the latest AP Poll, acting head coach Rodney Terry’s team is built along the lines of Penn State: Veteran, 5th-year guards who started their college careers elsewhere lead the way. Marcus Carr (6-2, 175) leads the team in points (15.9 per game), assists and steals. Sir’Jabari Rice (6-4, 180) averages 12.9 ppg. Up front, Timmy Allen (6-6, 210) plays a versatile game, leading the team in rebounds, ranking 2nd to Carr in assists and sitting 3rd in scoring. Dylan Disu (6-9, 225) specializes in blocks and rebounds.
The main players are all seniors other than sophomore guard Tyrese Hunter (6-0, 175).
Maybe Penn State meets its match this night. On the other hand, though, lately it is the opponents who struggle to match up with the Lions. A&M had no answers for Andrew Funk, the Bucknell transfer who went 8-of-10 on 3s and had clean looks on all 8 of the makes. The Lions shot 48.2% from the field, 59.1% from 3 and 81.8% from the line. They committed only 5 turnovers while forcing 10, with All-America point guard Jalen Pickett playing all 40 minutes without coughing up the ball once.
That formula will win, but if the shooting cools and ball security wanes, Penn State’s issues on the glass could become a difference-maker. The Lions gave up 15 offensive boards to the Aggies while getting outrebounded 32-27.
Second-year PSU coach Micah Shrewsberry has pushed a lot of right buttons as the Lions have won 9 of 11 despite being favored in only 3 of those games. Lost in the barrage of 3-pointers Thursday were a few screen-and-roll plays that allowed freshman center Kebba Njie to go 4-for-4 for 8 points. A few other back door plays helped keep the defense honest and the 3-ball pockets open, allowing Miles Dread to go 2-for-2 from deep and Seth Lundy 2-for-7.
Back in Des Moines, Iowa, tonight, the Lions will try to keep their magical run alive. After Thursday’s 13-of-22 effort from behind the arc, Penn State (23-13) is up to 5th in the nation in 3-point makes per game (10.5) and 6th in accuracy (38.99%). They actually received votes in the latest AP Poll, coming in at No. 32. Another win, and they might return to the Top 25 for the first time since climbing to No. 9 with a 20-5 record in February of 2020, former coach Pat Chambers’ final season. That season ended abruptly because of Covid, but not before the Lions lost 5 of their final 6 games.
Rankings be darned, this season is much more fun, with a late run instead of a swoon. If the Lions survive and advance tonight (7:45, CBS), they’ll be playing that Funky music all the way to Kansas City and a Sweet 16 meeting with Xavier or Pitt.
Let the bracket busting continue!