Northwestern Wildcats (10-6) at Penn State Nittany Lions (11-5)
We were right back in the win column again last night. I was on BYU playing on the road at San Francisco and the game played out exactly as we thought it would with the Cougars cruising to a fairly easy road victory. These conference games are always going to be tough taking the road favorites but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for value laying wood on the road, yesterday was a great example. Today I will be breaking down an in-conference game from the Big 10. A matchup between Penn State and Northwestern.
The Northwestern Wildcats will travel to Happy Valley to face the Penn State Nittany Lions in a matchup of two teams that badly need the win. Northwestern comes in at 10-6 and is trying to recapture the magic that led them to their first NCAA tournament in school history last season.
The Nittany Lions are another school that isn’t used to hearing its named called on Selection Sunday and is hoping to change that this season. They enter play tonight at 11-5 and need to win these home games in conference if they want to be considered as an at-large selection for the NCAA tournament. The Nittany Lions are -6-point home favorites. The game total over-under is set at 139 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:00 PM PST from the Jordan Center in University Park.
Northwestern had some very high hopes coming into this season. Last year saw the Wildcats make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history and when they got on the dance floor, they made it count. They won their first-round matchup and pushed the eventual national runner-up, Gonzaga, to the absolute brink before coming up just short in the round of 32. Many Northwestern fans saw this as a sign of better times to come, well that hasn’t really happened yet this year.
The good news for the Wildcats is that they still have plenty of time left to secure a slot in the big dance. Even with six losses on the season, none of them are really bad ones, so if they can pick up a couple of solid wins in Big 10 play, they could once again hear their name called on Selection Sunday. The Big 10 feels like a 6-8 team league this year and Northwestern falls right in that 7-9 range, they need a good conference season to rise above the pack. Another team that falls right in that 7-9 range in the Big 10 this season? The Penn State Nittany Lions.
Penn State is a football school that is trying to show the rest of the conference that they can play basketball too. They are just 1-2 in Big 10 play and can ill afford to drop to 1-3. While their record looks solid with 11 wins, they don’t have a single win against any team that will be playing in late March, they badly need to take care of business tonight at home.
Penn State has had its struggles at home already this year. They dropped an inexplicable game to Rider just before Christmas and lost to a struggling Wisconsin team at home as well. They are not protecting their home court against mediocre competition, that is a bad sign. They have a stretch of home conference games coming up that should all be winnable against Northwestern, Nebraska, and Minnesota, we will know a lot more about where this team stands after that stretch of games. If they can’t get the job done at home against the middle of the pack Big 10 teams, they are in trouble.
These Big 10 conference games are always battles. If you take out the top two or three teams out of the league, the Big 10 is very evenly matched this season. The teams that are able to navigate these games are going to sneak in the NCAA tournament, the ones that can’t are going to find themselves at home come tournament time. I don’t think either of these teams are going to end up playing in the NCAA tournament.
I think Nebraska and Michigan and Minnesota are just better teams, and I suspect both of these teams will stumble down the stretch in conference. Whichever team losses tonight will find it very hard to move up the Big 10 standings the rest of the year, as the loser will be at 1-3 in conference. If I had to make a pick on who wins the game outright, I think Penn State figures it out at home. They haven’t been great at home, not even against similar competition as Northwestern, but I just have a feeling they take care of business.
But now to the real question, do they cover the six points? Honestly, this number feels a little too high to me. I think it should be in the 2.5-3 range and I’m not sure why they opened at -6.5. The early action has come in on the Wildcats, and this line is moving their direction. It wouldn’t shock me to see this number close out at -3 or -4. I just don’t see anything that tells me that Penn State is any better than Northwestern. Yeah, they are at home, so I am not going to completely discount the team, but that number is just too big.
I am going to back Northwestern and hope the game stays as tight all night as I think it should. Give me the Northwestern Wildcats plus six points tonight on the road.