MSU goes back on the road on Sunday afternoon, visiting Happy Valley to face the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Nits are 1-2 in the league and 10-6 overall, but are coming off a 9 point home court victory over Minnesota during the week. Pat Chambers has yet to have his breakthrough season at PSU but he does seem to be finally starting to pull in a better level of talent. Most of it is young and some more is yet to arrive on campus, so for this season, it’s once again going to be a struggle, but there may be a light at the end of the tunnel not attached to an oncoming train.

Tom Izzo is 5-0 against Chambers and 27-6 versus PSU overall.

BACKCOURT – Shep Garner is starting at the point for PSU and is having a solid sophomore season after showing some promise last season. He’s second on the team at 14.6 ppg and has just under a 2:1 assist to TO ratio. Garner is a little better from deep than not (39% from three versus 38% overall, and a bit over half his shots come from outside the arc). He’s a nice piece for the present but especially the future for this program. Joining him as a starter is 6’4″ freshman Josh Reaves, probably the best recruit Chambers has landed in his PSU tenure (though that will change with next year’s class). Reaves is averaging 6.7ppg. He’s been terrible from deep…just 3-33 on the season from beyond the line…but his athleticism and skill has him at 37% overall, so he’s been able to do some damage inside the arc. Long term, he should be part of the improvement in this team as he’s a good secondary playmaker and should get better with his jumper (how could he be any worse?). Peyton Banks is at the other wing spot. A physical 6’6″ 220lbs sophomore, he’s having a nice second season as well, averaging 11.8ppg and 5.3 rpg. He too is struggling with the deep ball at 26% but he’s at 43% overall, so he also is proving able to produce in the midrange and at the rim at a decent clip.

Off the bench, it’s a short list for Chambers. Senior Devin Foster is really the only guy seeing sustained minutes at 17.6mpg. He’s shot well but the team’s ability to have offensive flow suffers when Garner is off the floor…probably why he’s averaging 35mpg. Isaiah Washington has played 11 times this year but would be a doubt for this game unless fouls or injury made it a necessity.

FRONTCOURT – Brandon Taylor is a 6’7″ senior whose time has finally come to be the focal point of the PSU attack. He’s been a long term starter but more of a bit part guy…always reminded me a bit of a poor man’s Raymar Morgan for some reason (maybe the hairdo?). Anyway, he’s leading PSU in scoring and rebounding at 16.3 and 6.4 respectively. He’s shot reasonably well (44/34%) and creates enough contact to get to the line for almost 6 FTA per game. He’s definitely the guy PSU relies upon to lead the way. 7 foot senior Jordan Dickerson starts in the middle for one main reason…he gives PSU a serious defensive presence. He blocks 2 shots per game but alters more than that. Beyond defense, Dickerson doesn’t contribute a ton statistically (about 3 and 3) but PSU has other guys to turn to inside off the bench for more scoring.

The main names in that reserve group are Julian Moore, Donovan Jack and Davis Zemgulis. Moore is a 6’10” sophomore who is averaging 4.4ppg and long term, they think he can be something of an offensive presence for them. Jack is a 6’9″ senior who has seen his minutes decline but he still has a nice enough combination of size and skill to contribute 3.7ppg in just under 13 mpg. Zemgulis is a 6’6″ freshman originaly from Lithuania who has some perimeter shooting ability and should be a rotation fixture for years to come.

THE 5 KEYS

1. The Return – It is anticipated that Denzel Valentine will play in this game for Michigan State. What I’ve heard from Izzo is that when Zel starts playing again, it won’t be in a bit part fashion to ease him in. So, if he does play tomorrow, I would expect him to earn large minutes and probably start. The latest is that it will be a gametime decision, as his head coach wants to see how he looks and feels after warm ups. If Zel is back, one interesting thing will be to see how the pieces all fit together again. He’s such a huge part of everything MSU does at both ends, and they’ve started to show some growth in areas which weren’t as strong before he was hurt (more consistent post play on offense and Eron Harris’ overall game being the two most obvious). Does all that continue with Zel back?

2. Make Them Bomb – PSU does not shoot the deep ball well…only 30% as a team. That’s one reason they only take about 1/3 of their overall shots from 3, but if you’re MSU you want to see them launching a lot and proving that they can hit before you look to take it away (sort of the flipside of the Illinois gameplan). OTOH, PSU has gotten to the line decently this season and theyr’e not a bad 2 point shooting group, so preventing penetration and forcing PSU to shoot jumpers should be what we see MSU try to force the Nits into.

3. Defensive Glass – We finally saw MSU control that end of the boards against the Illini, after several games (even before Zel went down) where that proved to be a struggle. PSU is a better rebounding team than either Minnesota or Illinois, so they’ll pose a challenge for MSU. As always, it’s key to clear the defensive glass in order to close out possessions against a team which doesn’t generally shoot the ball well *and* to get MSU’s transition game flowing.

4. Post Play – PSU has a defensive element in Dickerson that neither Minnesota nor Illinois possessed, but it’s still important for MSU to continue to go to work on the blocks the way they have of late. You can’t let a shotblocker discourage you from looking to get to the rim, so guys like Costello, Gavin and DD have to be strong and aggressive and take the ball right at the Nit defenders inside and go through them.

5. Convert – MSU has shot free throws generally well this season. PSU has a tendency to put opponents on the line a bit, so it’s important for the Spartans to cash in opportunities presented.

OVERALL – The hope and expectation is that Valentine is a full go for tomorrow and that alone makes this an important game, to get him back into the rhythm and the team in turn re-acclimate to him. PSU is a team in something of a transitional phase. The guys with the best talent are the young perimeter players but yet they still rely on vets like Taylor and Dickerson in key roles as well. One would hope that a young team will struggle to stay with the Spartans over the course of 40 minutes.