On paper, Penn State’s Thursday meeting with the Cornhuskers in Nebraska will be the Nittany Lions’ best chance in the new year to pick up their first conference win.
Nebraska is 1-3 in the Big Ten and is the only unranked Nittany Lion opponent in Penn State’s first four games of 2019.
But the reality of the situation is that given its severe struggles of late, Penn State will travel to Lincoln as a heavy underdog. In fact, Pat Chambers’ squad may not be favored to win a single Big Ten road game all season.
And while Nebraska has had its share of difficulty in the early goings of conference play, the senior-led Cornhuskers are still poised to be one of the better teams in the conference come the Big Ten Tournament.
“They’re starting three seniors and a junior and that always helps,” Chambers said. “[Nebraska coach Tim Miles] has done a great job. He’s done a great job of recruiting, he’s done a great job of when he’s going through his stormy seas, so to speak, he’s always figured it out.”
The trio of seniors Chambers mentioned — guards James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr., along with forward Isaac Copeland — is among the best trios of players any team in the Big Ten has to offer.
Palmer Jr., who at 6-foot-6 plays on the wing, is the second-highest scorer in the conference at more than 20 points per contest. He also gets to the charity stripe at a higher rate than any guard in the Big Ten and makes the most of his opportunities at the line. He’ll be the latest swingman Josh Reaves will have the task of guarding.
If Reaves, who leads the conference in steals, finds himself in foul trouble as he often has this season, Penn State is going to have major issues trying to slow down Palmer.
Watson Jr. facilitates the offense, as his 4.1 assists per game are good for sixth-most in the Big Ten, and he and Palmer both find themselves in the top-10 in the conference in steals per game. Copeland isn’t far behind with 1.27 takeaways per night, good for 12th most in the league.
Considering Penn State’s turnover woes, Nebraska poses a huge matchup problems with active hands and jumping in passing lanes. The Nittany Lions’ young guards are going to have to take better care of the ball if they have any chance to steal a win in Nebraska.
“We have to stop turning the ball over and start making open shots,” Chambers said. “I thought we played great at Michigan. We went toe-to-toe with the No. 2 team in the country. A shot here, one less turnover there and I think we’re a lot closer than people might think.”
Copeland is also shooting at a 38.8 percent clip from beyond the arc. In terms of body, Mike Watkins matches up pretty well with the 6-foot-9 Copeland. But an outside game for the Nebraska big man means Penn State will likely have to switch off on the perimeter, potentially exposing mismatches elsewhere on the floor.
Beyond the Cornhuskers’ quartet of double-digit scorers (junior Isaiah Roby averages just under 11 per game), Penn State also has the challenge of playing in a hostile environment.
“Their environment is awesome. It’s off the charts,” Chambers said. “The student section is right behind me screaming and yelling. They have a home court advantage. It’s loud, it’s crazy. They play very well at home.”
So well, in fact, that Nebraska hasn’t dropped a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena in 19 tries.
With the way Penn State has opened the league schedule, Chambers and his team are desperate for that first victory.
But Thursday doesn’t seem like the likeliest chance for the Nittany Lions to get it.