GAME NOTES: Less than a week after their last meeting, the Penn State Nittany Lions and Minnesota Golden Gophers duke it out in the first round of the 2014 Big Ten Conference Tournament from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Minnesota won that regular-season finale at Penn State, 81-63, to finish 19-12 overall and 8-10 in conference. As a result, the Gophers, who also topped the Lions at home earlier in the campaign to extend their current win streak in the series to four, and their overall series advantage to 31-10, were affixed with the No. 7 seed in this event.
Penn State has taken its share of lumps this season, going 15-16 overall and 6-12 in conference, and the team was saddled with the No. 10 seed in this event. The Nittany Lions come into the postseason having alternated losses and wins in their last four games.
Neither Minnesota nor Penn State has won this tournament before, although both have appeared in one championship game -- the Gophers falling to Ohio State in 2010, and the Lions losing to the Buckeyes a year later.
Despite its struggles, Penn State has one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country, as D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier combine for more than 33 ppg, with the former adding 4.9 rpg to his stat line, and the latter a league- leading 171 assists to his. Newbill's 17.8 ppg nearly earned him the Big Ten scoring title, an honor he just missed out on as Nebraska's Terran Petteway bested him by only two-tenths of a point. As a team, PSU is putting up 72.0 ppg, but surrenders more than 71 ppg to rank 11th in the 12-team conference. Perimeter defense has been a real problem for the Nittany Lions, who rank last in the league in 3-point field goal allowance (.348).
Minnesota has been wildly inconsistent since the start of conference play, and the Gophers haven't posted consecutive wins since beating Purdue and Penn State in early January. The team features three double-digit scorers, led by Andre Hollins and his 14.6 ppg. Elliott Eliason (5.5 ppg) doesn't do much offensively, but he leads the team on the boards (6.9 rpg), and he has blocked 63 shots (third-best in the conference). Collectively, the club musters up the same number of points as its counterpart in this contest, while allowing 67.7 ppg. Minnesota is one of the better free-throw shooting teams in the Big Ten (.748), while also pacing the league in steals (236). Furthermore, the Gophers are on the plus-side of the ledger in both rebounding (+2.0) and turnover (+0.4) margin, albeit it narrowly.
The battle between the two backcourts in the clash will be worth the price of admission, but where the game will likely be won is in the trenches. Expect the Gophers to earn their third win of the season over the Lions, who simply don't have the inside game to match up.
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