Penn State Basketball: For Years They Taught You Different Ways To Lose, Now It's Different Ways To Win
The transition from Monday's news that Penn State basketball is ranked 13th in the nation into Tuesday's reality that the Nittany Lions were set to face Purdue on the road was a somber one for a lot of fans.
Scroll through the message boards or glance down the Twitter timeline and you could find your fair share of people chalking up an evening in West Layfette as the end of a six-game winning streak. It was a fair prediction to make, one this author was guilty of as well.
The reason? Purdue had begun to find itself over the past three games, and had played well at Mackey Arena all season long. The Boilermakers had just won at Indiana, and had steamrolled Iowa and Michigan State earlier in the year. Purdue had put up 61 points against the Hawkeyes in a single 20 minute span. Everything was coming up Boilers. It just made sense.
Then you have Penn State, once again without Myreon Jones (out for a second game due to illness), once again playing on the road after an emotional week. The parity in the Big Ten alone made it hard to pick the Nittany Lions for a fourth-straight road victory. They're going to lose again, right? Everybody loses, the cards just didn't seem in the Nittany Lions' favor. It wouldn't be a big bump in the road, but everyone felt like they could see it coming.
Except for the team itself.
Penn State took a 3-0 lead to start the game, which in retrospect was a lot of foreshadowing as the Nittany Lions hit 14 shots from beyond the arc, a single make shy of tying the program's single-game record set against Purdue in 2001. Penn State never trailed, the game tied at 6-6 the closest the hosts got to leading.
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Without Jones and with Lamar Stevens sent to the bench with two fouls, playing just nine minutes in the first half, it was still a barrage of threes. Seth Lundy made six by the end of the night, Myles Dread added four more, continuing to put his slump in the past. In total, five players hit from beyond the arc with Curtis Jones Jr. coming close on a few occasions to making it six.
The lead grew, a double-digit run blowing the game open even further to begin the second half. Mike Watkins played like a man who had kept a list of all the teams he had lost to, cramming in 19 points while while hauling down 10 rebounds, all opposite the often praised Purdue big man Matt Haarms.
The Boilermakers would stir up a run that briefly cut the game to single digits in the final two minutes of play but it was more a product of Penn State's sometimes casual indifference up by as many as 24 that helped author that spurt. Free throws by Stevens and John Harrar ended any real threat of a comeback and the game's final seconds ticked down without dramatics. Penn State won again, 88-76.
It was a blowout, start to finish, beginning to end.
In the larger picture Penn State sits half a game behind Maryland in the Big Ten standings with Northwestern set to visit the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday afternoon.
In the minutia, Tuesday was another lesson in how different this Penn State team is compared to all the rest. Season after season, the Nittany Lions had taught you, the basketball fan, of the unique ways a team can lose. A late turnover, bad luck, bad bounces, bad shots, better teams on the other side of the court. There was nothing you hadn't seen, nothing that you couldn't contemplate or entertain. An educated Penn State basketball fan could usually guess how a game might end within the final five minutes even if the score was tied. It was predictable. You had seen it all.
This team defies all that institutional knowledge. For all the teams that taught fans the different ways one might lose a basketball game, this one is teaching fans all the different ways they can be won.
That's the most impressive thing about this particular Penn State basketball team as it defied anyone skeptical of its ranking. The Nittany Lions are far from a completed work, and have played far from perfect basketball during this seven-game wining streak. They've won pretty, they've won ugly. They've won because of their defense and because of their offense. Without their most efficient scorer they've won two crucial games with relative ease. Penn State hasn't trailed in a Big Ten game in just over 84 minutes of play.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that a win on Saturday would push Penn State into the top 10, something hard to fathom not long ago. Say, last week.
So maybe it's time to stop assuming what will happen because of all those other teams that you've seen before. I'm guilty of it. I've seen Penn State basketball lose so many different ways that I thought I had seen it all.
But I forgot about all the ways to win.
The good news for this group of Nittany Lions: they're coming up with new ways each night.
And maybe that's the best reason to stop betting against them.