Penn State will host Bucknell at the Bryce Jordan Center this afternoon, just days after learning that All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier would miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg.
The game will mark the 100th meeting between the two programs with Penn State holding a 75-24 advantage. It is the first meeting between the schools since 2006, when the Nittany Lions won at home 63-60 in overtime.
For the Nittany Lions (2-2), there likely would not have been an ideal time to face Bucknell (5-0) this season. The Bison excel in many areas in which the Nittany Lions struggle and they have already beaten a Big Ten team this season (Purdue 70-65).
But to face an opponent this talented in its first full game without Frazier will be an even bigger challenge for Penn State. Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers sees more than just a challenge for his team.
“There’s a great opportunity,” Chambers said at his weekly press conference. “One of your teammates went down. The next guy has to step up. So they’re all going to be asked to do more. Instead of watching Tim and expecting him to carry the load. Everybody has to do their job. Know your role, do your job, trust your teammates. That’s what we need to do.”
D.J. Newbill’s role will certainly expand as he takes on most of Frazier’s point guard responsibilities. Newbill is also now the team’s active leading scorer with 14.5 points per game.
“I think D.J. is very capable of playing the point and distributing,” Chambers said. “But Jermaine Marshall and Ross Travis they have to step up too, they have to play better, they have to play harder and they have to produce. And they will. They’re ready for the challenge.”
Offensively, some key areas have challenged the Nittany Lions so far this season. Penn State has yet to reach 40 percent shooting in a game this season (35 percent overall). They have hit more than 20 percent from the three-point line just once (33 percent, Akron). They also average 15 turnovers a game and Tim Frazier was the only player with more assists than turnovers.
Defensively, Penn State has allowed 47 percent shooting from the field and almost 42 percent from the three-point line.
In contrast, a veteran Bucknell squad, with four returning starters from last season’s 25-win team, excels in nearly every area in which Penn State struggles.
Bucknell’s offense is shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and has shot nearly 42 percent from beyond the arc. They also average 9.6 turnovers per game to Penn State’s 14.7. And defensively, the Bison have allowed just 32 percent shooting in the last three games (37 percent on the season).
They are led on both ends by 6-foot-11, center Mike Muscala, who needs 15 points to reach 1,500 for his career. The senior averages 17.2 points per game and is also the sixth player in Patriot League history to record 750 career rebounds.
“He’s extremely talented,” Chambers said. “You’re not going to stop a kid like that … Muscala’s going to get his points, we know that but we have to limit his good looks.”
“It’s a great game for us,” he continued. “I put this game on the schedule for a reason. There’s great bigs in the Big Ten. And we need to prepare for the Big Ten.”
Bucknell is also led by the effective shooting of guard Bryson Johnson (13.4 points per game) who stretches the defense with his long range shooting ability. Of the senior’s 40 field goal attempts, 20 have been from the three-point line where he shoots 45 percent. Cameron Ayers, a junior, is also a double-digit scorer with 11.1 points per game.
If Bucknell has a weakness it’s a difficulty, at times, to get Muscala the ball against pressure defense.
“That’s a big part of practice (this week),” said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen. “It’s still an issue that we have to get better with, but at the same time we don’t want to be a team that just sits around and force feeds the ball to Mike.”
“We think it’s important to have pretty good spacing on the floor and we have a couple of guys who can really stretch the defense,” Paulsen said. “Being able to shoot the three creates great momentum, but it also keeps the floor spaced for Mike to operate inside.”
Bucknell hasn’t beaten Penn State since 1976, in a 69-64 home win. The Bison haven’t beaten the Nittany Lions in State College since 1968, in a 74-73 win in overtime.
Today’s contest will be the first game of a multi-year series that is being slightly revised from the original announcement in June. Details on future game dates will be announced at a later date.
“We’re really excited for this rivalry to be renewed,” Paulsen said. “ I have nothing but the highest regard for Pat and his leadership.”
“My heart dropped when I heard (about Frazier’s injury) because you want to see the kids who stay for four years rewarded,” Paulsen said. “My heart goes out to Tim and hopefully he makes a great recovery and will play again.”
Penn State still has a long season ahead without Frazier, but Chambers doesn’t want his team, or anyone else, to wallow.
“The sky is not falling. The season’s not over,” Chambers said. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to compete, we’re going to play 40 minutes and you’re going to proud of the way we play.”
“The mentality needs to change,” he continued. “It really does. It’s been like this for a year. We need to start … (knocked on the table) let’s go, time to go, time to compete, time to play hard, time to be Penn Staters, be proud of it. And that’s what I told them; let’s go. That’s why attitude is a great foundation to have.”