Not surprisingly, Penn State enters play tonight as the Big Ten leader with a record of 13-3 overall, 4-0 in conference. The results aren't surprising because the Nittany Lions have experienced players returning to their positions at point guard, shooting guard, and small forward and a coach who's had enough experience to guide her young squad (0 seniors, 3 juniors, 5 sophomores, and 1 freshman) through a tough schedule that has included games against top-10 opponents LSU and Kansas State.
Penn State is very strong on the perimeter, helped in part by the return of Jess Strom, Kelly Mazzante, and Tanisha Wright at the positions mentioned above. With such strong players dictating the tempo of the game, it isn't surprising that the Nittany Lions are 2nd in the conference in scoring (84.2 ppg overall), 1st in FT percentage (78.6), 3rd in FG percentage (48.3), and 3rd in 3-pt FG percentage (38.1). Four players average double figures in points per game while a fifth, Strom, is teetering on the edge with 9.4.
With perimeter play and offense such a strength for the Nittany Lions, a person might guess that rebounding and defense would suffer as a result. While it hasn't been too much of a concern overall--Penn State is averaging 3 more rebounds per game than its opponents--the Nittany Lions have had difficulty rebounding against some of their top competition: Mississippi State outrebounded them by 13 and grabbed 22 offensive boards, Kansas State also outrebounded them by 13 and had 19 offensive rebounds, LSU had one more rebound and 13 offensive boards, and Minnesota had 7 more rebounds and 13 offensive boards. However, Penn State still pulled a 2-2 record from those games. How? The Nittany Lions take care of the basketball: all but one of the six players who get regular court time have an assist-to-turnover ratio above 1 and the team averages only 14 miscues per game while forcing the opponents into 19. With more opportunities as a result of a low turnover rate and a high FG%, the Nittany Lions are very difficult to outscore.
You can learn more about the Nittany Lions at the following addresses:
http://www.gopsusports.com/basketballw/home.cfm (official PSU website)
http://www.bigten.org/PressReleases/20021203/bkw-2002-03-overall-STATS.cfm (official Big Ten stats through all games)
Penn State has seemingly always had great players at the point guard position over the years: Suzie McConnell had 71 double-figure assist games from 1985-1988, Tina Nicholson was a three-time first-team Big Ten member and was immediately followed up by Helen Darling, a Kodak All-American her senior season. The Nittany Lions were one year removed from Helen Darling when their next all-everything point guard came to campus, sophomore Jess Strom.
The point guard position may be the most important in all of college basketball. She sets the tempo of the game and can either freeze an opponent by keeping the pace slow or wear the other team down by keeping a high-octance offense running on all cylinders. She also sees that either the ball gets to the right player for a score or that it goes to someone who can get the ball to that player. Finally, she is as close to a head coach on the floor as anyone on the team, calling plays, calming down or inspiring teammates, and seeing the entire court at all times to look for signs of opponents' weakness. To have a player of any age who can do this is a great achievement. To have a player doing it in her first year of collegiate ball is extraordinary. Jess Strom is extraordinary in this way.
Not only did Strom lead the Big Ten in assists last year as a freshman, but she also currently leads the Big Ten in assists this year at 7.5 points per game. Add that Strom is the best at assist:turnover ratio in the Big Ten for the second consecutive year and you have a player who will be effective in the high-octane offense that Penn State runs. To have the ball in her hands that much during a game, it's stunning that she can make enough right decisions to limit the number of times that opponents can get a TO and free basket. Essentially, she's Penn State's first line of defense that way.
Strom's by no means a shooting slouch, either, nailing 42% of her shots and 33.8% of her 3-pointers. And while her skills are excellent, it's her nerve that makes me take note: against the Boilermakers last year in Mackey, the freshman point guard completed a four-point play near the end of the game that brought the Nittany Lions back to life one more time before Purdue finally pulled away. To attempt a shot of that magnitude at that time in the game in front of a crowd that large as a freshman? And then nail a free throw to finish it off? That's guts and strength personified.
Yes, Kelly Mazzante will be named a Kodak All-American her final two years of college and the Big Ten's most outstanding player those years as well, and Tanisha Wright will be the top scorer and slasher on the Nittany Lion squad for two years after this, but remember that it's the point guard that stirs the drink in the collegiate game. And Jess Strom may be the best there is.
Learn more about Jess Strom at the following addresses:
http://www.gopsusports.com/basketballw/People/players/Playerprofile.cfm?rosterID=1621 (official Penn State website)
http://www.pittsburghfirst.com/athlete/19990225hsathletes6.asp (Player of the Week article during her high school sophomore year)
http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2001/11/11-08-01tdc/11-08-01dsports-04.asp (Game report freshman year in exhbition game)
OK, here's the short of it. I do not like Penn State, I have never liked Penn State, I will never like Penn State. Which makes this portion of the preview all the more difficult: the Nittany Lions may pull the upset Thursday night in Mackey Arena. Why?
1) The Lions are on a roll. PSU has had a more difficult Big Ten season than Purdue already and have responded with a 4-0 record. While the victories over Wisconsin and Northwestern may not be all that telling, Penn State obliterated Minnesota--a team that was on a roll--and Iowa at home. While PSU hasn't played in front of large crowds this season--three road crowds over 6,000 and one over 11,000--they can quiet a crowd really fast with bursts from the gate.
2) They're not prone to turnovers. See the first part of this preview.
3) Star power and confidence. Kelly Mazzante was held in check last year by Kelly Komara's great defense and the Nittany Lions still made it a very close game as Tanisha Wright and Jess Strom picked up the slack as freshmen. Mazzante and Wright are 1,4 in scoring this year in the Big Ten and Strom, as noted, is an excellent point guard. The flash, effenciency, and sizzle of such stars may throw the Boilermakers off.
There are a number of things that Purdue can do to keep the lead throughout the game, but they'll have to mind the details:
1) Keep the Nittany Lions off the offensive boards. PSU is a good shooting team; give them more than one shot from the field at a time and they'll fry anyone. Eighty points is not out of the question for PSU tonight. Good offensive rebounding could push it to ninety. When was the last time the Boilermakers scored 90?
2) Keep the number of turnovers low. Every possession is an opportunity to score either from the field or the free throw line. If the Boilermakers don't even get an opportunity to score on a number of occasions, there's going to be a wide spread in points.
3) Hit some 3 pointers. Mary Jo is going to be the biggest player on the court by far on Thursday night. She's as efficient as anyone on Purdue when it comes to point production due to her FG and FT percentages. Penn State knows this and will probably double- and triple-team her as often as possible. If that's the case, Purdue can't go 0-10 or 1-9 from 3-point range as they did against Wisconsin and Michigan. Lindsey Hicks pulled out of a slump, it's time for Beth Jones and the outside shooters to do the same.
4) Someone must have an extraordinary game. I didn't listen to the game against Michigan State, so I was surprised when I read the box score: all the starters pretty much hit their scoring averages against the Spartans and the team did OK on the boards and with defensive plays (steals, blocks). But everyone was average. Penn State isn't a team with much depth, but the players who do play regularly contribute in often surprising ways. The Boilermakers need everyone to try to do "more" in general to come out on top not only in this game but all others. Shereka Wright has done it the most often, Erika Valek has proven she has it in her, and Mary Jo can dominate when she gets the ball down low. Can all three do it together? And who else will step up?
Tonight's game is going to be like a old-fashioned gunfight. Both teams respect one another and know the other's weaknesses. Neither will back down if the other has a quick flurry of points. Experience is key for both, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of backup for either. Penn State can do no wrong in this game: they're the underdogs in the national polls, they're on top of every other team in the Big Ten, and they're the media darlings with their offensive prowess. Purdue, however, can't go down 2 games to the Big Ten leaders this early in the season, especially with a game at PSU looming in the future. There's more at stake for the Boilermakers tonight than the Nittany Lions. The Boilermaker coaches realize it, but will the Purdue players respond by playing at a high level throughout?