The men’s basketball team squares off against Penn State Saturday in what should be one of the toughest games of the season for the Tigers. And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, the game will also be played at Penn State’s Rec Hall — the home of Nittany Lions basketball from 1929-96 — instead of the Bryce Jordan Center, the first time a game has been held there in 18 years.
Rec Hall is reminiscent of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in that it is relatively small and the fans are practically on the court, creating an electric atmosphere which likely contributed to Penn State (8-3) winning 73.7 percent of its matchups there over the years, including a 45 game win streak from 1951-55. It’s standing room only for this historic event, so it will be loud and the rafters will be shaking.
Princeton (7-1) is coming off an exciting 78-73 win at Rutgers Wednesday night in the 120th meeting between the two teams. The Tigers have now matched the eight game record of the fabled ’97-’98 team that won 26 of its first 27 games and reached 22nd in the AP poll. The game was back and forth most of the way before a 9-1 run made it 66-57 Tigers with 4:48 remaining. The Scarlet Knights (5-7) fought back valiantly in the last minute, but good Princeton free throw shooting kept the game out of reach.
Rutgers played tight defense inside, allowing few shots in the paint and pulling down 79.3 percent of possible defensive rebounds, a full 10 percentage points above their season average. However, this left the perimeter open for the Tigers, a squad that already led the nation in percentage of field goal attempts from behind the arc at 49.3 percent. They took advantage of the opportunity, attempting a season-high 34 threes and a season low 17 from inside the arc. Princeton made 16 three-pointers, the highest team total against a Division I opponent since they made 16 at Dartmouth in February of 2002. The Tigers struggled defensively, as Rutgers managed 50 percent shooting for the game, including 70.6 percent from inside during the second half. It was reminiscent of the games against Lafayette and George Mason, the other two teams to have bullied Princeton down low.
“It was a seesaw game. We never really got in much of a rhythm on offense or defense,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said. “We stayed with what we do. This was a tough win on the road in a big rivalry game.”
Senior guard T.J. Bray led the way for the Tigers again after serving a one-game suspension for violating Department of Athletics rules. After scoring just three point in the first half, Bray exploded for 20 in the second half, including 15 in the last 8:43, almost single-handedly winning the game for the Tigers. He also recorded eight assists, bringing his averages to 16 points and 5.75 assists per game.
“In the first half they were collapsing on me inside so I kept kicking it out,” Bray said after the game. “In the second half they game me more room, so I started shooting.”
Bray would rank 32nd in Division I in assists per game and 14th in three point field goal percentage at 52.2 percent, had he played enough games to qualify. However, Bray’s true strength lies in his versatility and all-around shooting strength. The statistic that best captures this is known as effective field goal percentage, which is simply points per field goal attempt divided by two. Here Bray ranks among the top ten in the country at .757. This rate is actually above the unofficial NCAA record for the statistic as kept by sports-reference.com since 1997.
Junior forward Denton Koon, sophomore forward Hans Brase and junior guard Ben Hazel each contributed 14 points against Rutgers and are the other three Tigers averaging double digit points per game this season.
Penn State has a good season so far and is coming off of a narrow loss December 3rd at Pitt, a team just outside the top 25 in the most recent AP and USA Today polls. Its defense matches up smoothly with Princeton’s offense: The Nittany Lions allow 71.7 points per game while the Tigers score 72.1 points per game. They allow 12 assists and 35.7 rebounds per game while Princeton averages 14.9 assists and 33.5 rebounds. They are below average defending the three, while Princeton is one of the best three-point shooting teams in both quantity and quality.
The game will likely come down to how well Princeton’s defense can handle the high powered Nittany Lions offense. They score 80.5 points per game while the Tigers allow just 62.9, placing both teams in top 50 nationally for those categories. Penn State records 15.1 assists and 37.1 rebounds per game, while Princeton allows 9.2 and 30.6, respectively. Penn State makes eight three-pointers per game, 47th best in the country, while Princeton allows only 4.5, 26th best in the country. Something will have to give.
The Nittany Lions are led by high scoring frontcourt duo Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill. Newbill averages 18.5 points and 6.2 boards per game and shoots above 50 percent from the floor. Frazier, whom Henderson mentioned when asked about the Penn State team, is averaging 17.9 points and a whopping 7.7 assists per game. Princeton has had trouble the last two games with small guards, allowing 21 points to Myles Mack of Rutgers and 23 points to Sidney Sanders Jr. of Fairleigh Dickinson.
This will be the 12th meeting between Princeton and Penn State. The Tigers are 3-8 all time against the Nittany Lions and have yet to win in State College in four tries. If Princeton wins, it will be on a seven-game win streak, the longest win streak since it won 10 straight in January and February of 2010.