Coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss at the hands of Romeo Langford and the Indiana Hoosiers, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) will return home Saturday night for a matchup with the Penn State Nittany Lions (12-16, 5-12).
Penn State may be sitting at second-to-last in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions are not a team to be taken lightly considering the Badgers’ recent stretch of underwhelming performances.
Wisconsin has now lost three of their last five games, including the aforementioned backbreaker to an unranked Indiana squad. The two wins over that stretch were nothing to write home about either, as both came down to the wire despite being against relatively inferior competition in Illinois and Northwestern.
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On the other hand, Penn State is red hot at the moment, winning four of their last five, including a six-point win over No. 9 Michigan and a 17-point blowout of No. 17 Maryland Wednesday night. Though they won’t be in the NCAA Tournament, the Nittany Lions are savoring the opportunity to make life harder for those who will.
Before their recent cold stretch, Wisconsin was looking like a lock for a four-seed at the very least. But now the Badgers are looking more and more like a five-or-six-seed, and another bad loss or ugly win game could drag them down further. Closing out these last three games strong is crucial, and Saturday night, it will be all about slowing down junior forward Lamar Stevens.
Stevens — last year’s National Invitational Tournament Most Valuable Player — has carried a strong sophomore season into an even more impressive junior campaign. Averaging 19.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, the Philadelphia native is well on his way to first or second-team All-Big Ten honors. He has been the driving force behind Penn State’s recent surge — averaging 26 points per game in their last four wins — and has his team resembling the one that took the NIT crown in 2018.
When these two teams first faced off Jan. 6, All-American Ethan Happ was tasked with guarding Stevens, and fans can expect to see the same matchup this time around. Both played well, with each scoring team-highs of 22 points. While Stevens kept pace with Happ, his teammates struggled to get going.
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Because Happ could contain Stevens in the paint, unlike so many other teams, Wisconsin guards were able to stay on the perimeter, forcing guys like Rasir Bolton and Myles Dread — normally very reliable long-range options for the Lions — to continuously deal with a hand in their face while shooting. The Nittany Lions could only muster 4-for-20 shooting from downtown that night.
Another key for the Badgers will be to recover from their ever-present struggles from the charity stripe. The Badgers’ 64.6 percent mark is among the worst in the nation, and poor free-throw shooting once again cost the Badgers a potential victory against Indiana. Though D’Mitrik Trice hit three straight free throws to tie the game with under ten seconds to go in double overtime, the Badgers missed six free throws in the period and ended up losing by two.
The final key for the Badgers will be their bench production, which proved to be crucial in their Jan. 6 victory by scoring 19 points in a 19-point victory. We’ve seen spurts of greatness from role players Brevin Pritzl, Kobe King and Aleem Ford all year long, and these last few ballgames will determine which of them — or their fellow reserves — will be getting big minutes when it matters most.
This is once again a game of which the Badgers should prevail, but with the recent struggles, we can never be sure. You can catch the game live Saturday at noon on the Big Ten Network or listen on the Badger Sports Network.