Penn State basketball: Nittany Lions to host No. 5 Michigan State

Happy New Year Penn State. Enjoy the party.

The Nittany Lion men’s basketball team opens its Big Ten schedule — and closes 2013 — with its toughest test so far this season by welcoming No. 5 Michigan State to the Bryce Jordan Center.

Penn State says goodbye to the non-conference season with a 9-4 record — the team’s best mark heading into the Big Ten since the 2008-09 season.

“I’m excited. I felt like our non-conference has done a great job for us,” Nittany Lion coach Patrick Chambers said. “We played every style you can imagine. That excites me, we’ve seen everything. There’s going to be nothing that we’re not ready for. Now, we have two new guys, it makes our bench a little deeper, in case of foul trouble.”

Chambers also knows his team could be bringing an even better record into Tuesday’s game, with a loss at home to Bucknell and two late-second-half leads disappearing in setbacks to Princeton and at Pittsburgh. The Princeton loss especially burns after the Nittany Lions were up by 20 in the second half.

“It easily could’ve been 10, it easily could’ve been 11, but for whatever reason, it’s not,” Chambers said of the team’s record. “You have to learn from those losses and that should make us more prepared for the Big Ten. We should be very well prepared for the road and the teams that come in here.”

Chambers’ team also will have to shake off a little rust. The Nittany Lions have had only one game since Dec. 14 — a 92-82 win over Mount St. Mary’s nine days ago.

The Spartans (11-1) have already had a number of high-profile games this season and figure to be pretty well battle tested for the visit to the Jordan Center.

Michigan State has wins over No. 15 Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma and Texas, and a loss to No. 19 North Carolina early in the month that knocked the Spartans from the No. 1 spot in the nation. They are coming off a 101-48 rout of New Orleans on Saturday, in a game that saw four players score in double figures.

To stick with the Spartans, the Nittany Lions will need its offense playing at its best, with both teams bringing in some high-scoring firepower. Penn State is averaging 81.7 points per game this season, which is its best output in years and 17 points a game better than this point last season, but will be facing a Michigan State team averaging 83.7 points per game.

The game also will feature four of the Big Ten’s top six scorers. Penn State is led by its dynamic backcourt of DJ Newbill, who leads the conference with 18.9 points per game, and Tim Frazier (18.2), who ranks fourth in scoring. They also are the highest-scoring backcourt in Division I. The next two on the list are Michigan State’s Adreian Payne (18.0) and Gary Harris (17.9).

While the Spartans have plenty of scoring, they also show off their teamwork in getting the ball to their scorers, averaging 19.5 assists per game to lead the conference and rank second in the nation. Five players each average two or more assists per game.

Penn State also will have a little added depth with John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson getting to play their second game with the Nittany Lions after sitting out the first semester because of NCAA transfer rules. Johnson scored 20 points in his debut against Mount St. Mary’s.

Notes: The Lions are playing their first conference opener at home since 2008-09, which also was on New Year’s Eve, a 61-57 win over Northwestern. ... Penn State is playing its fourth New Year’s Eve home game in the last nine seasons, with the previous three ending with Nittany Lion wins. Before a 2005 win over Mount St. Marys, the team hadn’t played at home on Dec. 31 since 1952. ... Michigan State owns a 31-7 record in the series with Penn State, and is 12-4 at the BJC. ... If Michigan State wins, coach Tom Izzo would earn his 210th victory in the conference tying him with former Indiana coach Branch McCracken for fifth on the Big Ten wins list. Izzo earned his 450th win overall at Michigan State on Saturday. ... The Nittany Lions open the conference slate with three of its first four games at home, visiting Illinois on Saturday before hosting Minnesota (Jan. 8) and Indiana (Jan. 11). ... Fans can get into the game cheap. Showing a 2014 First Night button will get a game ticket for $5. ... Fans also will receive hats, glasses, tiaras and beads to celebrate the new year.