DES MOINES, Iowa — The college basketball analytics website KenPom.com categorizes specific team’s stats with color coding. The better a team is in a category, the color turns to vibrant green. Conversely, teams who fail to produce in a category have that number highlighted in red.
As Texas A&M head men’s basketball coach Buzz Williams points out, Penn State’s page looks like the Nittany Lions are celebrating Christmas.
The seventh-seeded Aggies (25-9) and 10th-seeded Nittany Lions (22-13) will meet in the first round of the NCAA tournament at 8:55 p.m. Thursday with each team playing vastly different styles, a fact made more obvious by the green-red nature of Penn State’s KenPom.com page.
“It’s very unique. I’ve really enjoyed studying them,” Williams said.
Penn State is ranked ninth in the country in 3-point field goal percentage (38.5%), second in percentage of total points made from 3-point range (43.1%) and sixth in 3-pointers per game (10.4).
This year’s Nittany Lion squad set the school’s single-season record for 3-pointers made, hitting 364 heading into the NCAA tournament. The total is one away from the Big 10 Conference record.
“They shoot too many,” Williams said. “They’re dependent to some degree. Their foul rate is real low. Their foul rate is really low, because most of their team stays outside the 3. Their turnover rate is really low ... because one player is making the decisions.”
The catalyst for the Nittany Lion’s offense is guard Jalen Pickett, who finished the season as Penn State’s first All-American in nearly 70 years. He ranks fifth in the nation in assists per game (6.7) and 18th in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.04). He’s also the only player in the country to average at least 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game.
BartTorvik.com ranks him as the second-best offensive player in the country behind Purdue’s Zach Edey.
The Aggies’ base defense is designed to clog the middle of the floor and force teams to shoot from outside, so A&M’s players said they won’t need to adapt for Penn State’s outside shooting prowess.
“I don’t think it’s that much different,” A&M guard Andre Gordon said. “We’re really focused on us. We want teams to play our game, and we don’t want to play anyone else’s game. We’re just going to contest every shot that they shoot and rebound the ball as well as we have all year.”
As has been the case throughout the season, the Aggies will rely on senior guard Dexter Dennis to guard Pickett, a challenge he has relished throughout the season.
“I think [Pickett] is an extraordinary player,” Dennis said. “I think they have a great team. I think their best thing is they know each other. You can tell when you watch the clips and you watch them play. They’re comfortable with what they’re doing, which is extremely dangerous. To some it may not look like much, but they really pose a threat with their outside shot making ability, and Pickett is also a weapon when he gets in the mid-post area or all around. He does a lot for the team.”
A&M’s plan has to be much more than just doing everything possible to lock down Pickett, Williams said.
“I actually think that’s how Penn State has beat teams,” Williams said. “When you begin to think it’s this player vs. [Pickett], [Pickett] is going to beat you every time. We spent an inordinate amount of time since Monday ... if you give all of your attention to [Pickett], he is going to be the decision maker that beats you. You have to be really careful in how we play defense. It’s not going to be about a player. We’re going to be aware of that player, but those other players are why they’ve won eight out of their last 10.”
The Aggies carry the advantage on the offensive glass, ranking sixth in the nation with a 36.6 offensive rebounding percentage. A&M also owns an advantage at the free-throw line. A&M scores 26.2% of its points from the charity stripe, which ranks second in the nation. A&M leads the nation in free throws made (19.2 per game) and free throws attempted (25.3).
Penn State, on the other hand, only pulls down 18.8% of its offensive boards (362nd) and scores 12.4% of its points at the free-throw line.
While A&M has been absent from the NCAA tournament since 2018, Penn State is looking to make an even more historic mark. The Nittany Lions haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2001.
A&M wants to keep the good times rolling with a team that has developed an extraordinary amount of chemistry and belief in what it does best.
“We’re just happy to be here,” A&M guard Wade Taylor said. “It’s a blessing to be here from where we started and where we are now. This is my first time, so I’m super excited. Just hearing our name get called, that’s more than enough for what this team has been through. We’re just here to show what we can do.”