It’s not the Breslin Center, nor is it Mackey Arena. It is far, too, from the environment found at Assembly Hall.
But the Bryce Jordan Center in State College presents its own unique challenges, just like the team that calls it home.
When Indiana returns to action tonight at Penn State, the Hoosiers will meet a young and spunky Nittany Lions program on the rise. IU also knows from recent experience that this is a matchup that deserves its full attention.
“Last year they popped us because we didn’t come in there with the right mindset,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said on his weekly radio show. “On a veteran team, we did not come in there with the right mindset of knowing that we were going to be in a fight that day. If we don’t go into this game with the mentality that we are going to be in a fight in this game, then it will happen to us again.”
Last February’s 68-63 loss provided a minor scare to the Hoosiers, who made that trip East having won 14 of their previous 15 games. They looked uninspired, playing flat and sloppy basketball, unlike the brand they’d built during the previous month and a half’s worth of games.
The cavernous and seldom-full Bryce Jordan Center, which lists an official capacity of 15,261, can be a tough place to play. It requires teams to create their own energy and sustain it in an otherwise sleepy environment.
While trying to find its own identity in recent weeks, Indiana has not always brought the required focus and intensity — especially at the start of games. Another occurrence of those hiccups, which were again on display early in Sunday’s win over Rutgers, could cost IU.
“You have to come out with a really strong mindset from the beginning of the game,” junior guard Robert Johnson said. “Last year, we didn’t do that. That’s something we’ll have to do this time around.”
This appears to be the most talented team Penn State has had in Pat Chambers’ six seasons as coach. The Lions are young, but they can play.
Their lineup features a pair of former significant Indiana recruiting targets in freshman guard Tony Carr and classmate Lamar Stevens. The latter is second on the team in scoring (12.2) and rebounding (5.8), and has led Penn State in scoring in five games, including two of the past three games.
“Lamar Stevens has done a very good job for them as a freshman,” Crean said. “They are a deep team, and by deep, I mean when he goes to the bench – in the past with Penn State, at times when he would go to the bench, you could see a difference. When he goes to the bench now, you don’t see a difference. I think that is a tribute to what (Chambers) has done in his recruiting. He has some really good relationships out there and they work Philadelphia hard and he has done a good job. He has done a very good job.”
Penn State’s depth was recognized on Monday when forward Mike Watkins received his second Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor of the season. Watkins, whose four double-doubles are already a Penn State freshman record, started the first 14 games but has come off the bench for the past four.
The 6-foot-9, 246-pound Watkins scored 15 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in his last game against Minnesota. In his previous game against Michigan State, which Penn State won at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Watkins scored 11 points and pulled down nine boards.
“He is a very good rebounder,” Crean said. “He’s very athletic. He blocks shots. He’s very good in the screen-and-roll game. He rolls very well to the rim, especially off the side. He takes big strides. When he gets the ball, he does a good job of taking big strides with the ball to score. We have to be aggressive with him. We have to be aggressive with him when he has the ball in the post and the pick-and-roll. The biggest thing is we have to keep him off the glass because he is coming off a 15-rebound game.”
Watkins is part of the equation that has allowed Penn State to take a step forward this season. A win over Indiana would give the Lions their first 4-2 record to start conference play since the 1999-2000 season.
Defense has been at the heart of Penn State’s improved play. Through five Big Ten games, the Lions have the league’s top-rated adjusted defensive efficiency rating (90.1). They’re holding opponents to 43.8 percent shooting inside the arc and 29.9 percent on 3-pointers.
Penn State is also forcing turnovers on 20.1 percent of its opponents offensive possessions — the third highest mark of the young conference season.
“You’ve got to have a great mindset, an urgent mindset from the opening tip until the game ends,” assistant coach Tim Buckley said. “We know that in any game in this league.”
NOTE: The status of Juwan Morgan remains unclear after the sophomore forward injured his foot late in Sunday’s win over Rutgers.
On Tuesday, Buckley classified Morgan’s injury as a game-time decision.