7:45 PM EST, CBS – Line: Texas -5.5, Over/Under: 138
After a thoroughly entertaining first round of the 2023 Men’s NCAA Tournament, we reach the next round of play with a matchup that is typically reserved for the gridiron, as the tenth-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions look to pull another upset as they face off against the second-seeded Texas Longhorns in this Midwest Region Second Round showdown from Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Unless you were an avid viewer of Big Ten basketball this season, then you probably wrote off Penn State (23-13, 9-9 in Big Ten) when you were filling out your brackets earlier in the week, though for those of us who watched them consistently punch above their weight class in a conference that sent the joint-most teams into this tournament field, their success thus far has been hardly surprising. That’s because the Nittany Lions check a lot of boxes that we commonly attribute to Cinderellas in the big dance. First, playing in the Big Ten, they are battle-tested and very accustomed to being an underdog; (Head Coach) Micah Shrewsberry’s troops are 8-9 this season straight-up as an underdog, with several notable upsets over the likes of Illinois (74-59), Maryland (65-64), and Indiana (77-73), before very nearly toppling (top-seeded) Purdue (65-67) in the Big Ten Championship Game, all of which are in the tournament field, before eliminating Texas A&M on Thursday (more on that affair shortly). Furthermore, they bested Furman (73-68), who as we saw delivered the first major upset of the tourney earlier that same day. Second, they are full of experience, with a starting five consisting solely of Seniors, which is a rarity in today’s game. Shrewsberry has hit the Transfer Portal hard in his two years leading the Lions, adding the likes of (versatile Guards) Jalen Pickett and Andrew Funk from Siena and Bucknell in successive years. Veteran Backcourts typically thrive in this tournament, and as we’ll cover shortly, they each played major roles in their conquest of the Aggies. The final ingredient for the Lions is three-point shooting, which makes them very dangerous in March; PSU ranked SECOND in the country in triples (377), which equates to 10.5 per game (5th Overall) and a stellar percentage of 39.0% (6th Overall). Indeed, this is the foundation of their attack, with over 47.0% of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc, while all five starters shoot over 37.5% creating precious spacing along the way. When we last saw them, Shrewsberry’s charges pulled a modest upset in Thursday’s 76-59 win over (7 Seed) Texas A&M, marking their first victory in the NCAA Tournament in over a decade. This one was never in question, folks, as the Nittany Lions dominated the first half in which they outscored the Aggies by sixteen points, en route to shooting 48.2% from the field, including a torrid 13-of-22 from beyond the arc (59.1%), where they bested their opponent by nine points. With all this talk of their shooting, the real difference in this contest was PSU’s defense, which completely stifled A&M, who could muster just 33.9% shooting overall, including a disappointing 10-of-25 inside the arc (40.0%), while committing more turnovers (10) than assists (9). Sure, relinquishing FIFTEEN offensive rebounds to any team is worrying, but that was partially because the Ags couldn’t manage to throw the ball into the ocean. On the flipside, Shrewsberry had to have been satisfied with how efficient his attack was, for the Lions dished out a healthy seventeen fourteen assists opposed to throwing the rock away a mere five times. As he has throughout the campaign, Pickett filled up the stat sheet with nineteen points, seven rebounds, and eight assists making up for a subpar shooting performance (7-of-18), but that was okay because Funk (pictured above) absolutely erupted with a season-best twenty-seven points on 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%), drilling a career-high 8-of-10 triples (80.0%) to book passage into the second round of the big dance. From a betting perspective, Penn State has been a stellar performer against the spread this season, posting a 21-13-2 record overall, while covering the number in all but three of their last ten outings regardless of the venue. Though they’re just 4-7 thus far on the road straight-up, the Nittany Lions have been much better against the spread with eight victories in ten tries away from Happy Valley, including five consecutive covers. Furthermore, they’ve proven to be a smart bet as an underdog, winning seven of their last ten contests outright and covering all but one of them when getting points, which once again is the case tonight. In this first all-time meeting between these programs, a victory over the Longhorns will propel the Lions into the second weekend of the tourney for just the sixth time in school history and the first in over twenty years.
Meanwhile, it’s been quite a season for Texas (27-8, 12-6 in Big XII), who began the campaign with such high hopes only for it to be potentially derailed by off-court drama. Of course, we’re referring to the saga of (former Head Coach) Chris Beard, who was fired back early January following a domestic dispute with his fiancé. Of course, Beard was hired by the Longhorns two years after leading rival Texas Tech to the National Championship Game, with the 2019 AP National Coach of the Year leading his new school 22-12 finish and a trip to the big dance. This season began strongly, as the 50-year-old guided the ‘Horns to a 7-1 start that included victories over the likes of Creighton (72-67) and Gonzaga (93-74), with both teams ranked in the top-ten at the time. However, it wouldn’t take long for Beard to be dismissed after news broke of an ugly physical altercation with his soon-to-be-wife, leaving the program at a crossroads. Fortunately, (Interim Head Coach) Rodney Terry has done a tremendous job of steadying the ship, leading Texas to a solid 20-7 finish including multiple victories over (top-seeded) Kansas, including a 76-56 thumping of the Jayhawks to secure their second-ever Big XII Tournament Title. So, what have been the keys to success for the 54-year-old who is looking to shed that interim label, you ask? Well, as is the case with their opponent tonight, the Longhorns are a veteran team, which explains how they managed to overcome Beard’s firing, with six Seniors comprising one of the deeper rotations in the tournament field. This extends to the Backcourt, which as we’ve seen over the years is a prerequisite for success; (Senior Guards) Marcus Carr and Sir’Jabari Rice have been stellar in their final run together in Austin, combining for 29.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 2.4 steals in conference play. However, unlike their counterparts from Happy Valley, this group gets it done within the arc, where they seventeenth overall in two-point field goals (734) and fifty-seventh in two-point percentage (53.7%). As they did under Beard, the ‘Horns look to push the tempo by creating havoc defensively, forcing 16.1 turnovers per game, ranking in the upper percentile of the nation, which in turn leads to a wealth of opportunities in transition. Ideally, this team wants to play fast and when they speed the game up they can become an overwhelming force. Just ask the Jayhawks. When we last saw them, Terry’s charges dispatched (15 Seed) Colgate with relative ease, cruising to an 81-61 victory. This one was never in doubt, as the ‘Horns hooked the Raiders on a blistering 54.3% shooting from the field, including a torrid 13-of-23 from beyond the arc (56.5%), where they held a decisive +30 advantage. The Big XII denizens also outrebounded the Patriot League Champions 34-23, while amassing twenty assists along the way. With that said, their defensive showing on the perimeter was the biggest takeaway from this first-round massacre, as they permitted a scant SIX assists in comparison to forcing ten turnovers. The aforementioned Carr and (Senior Forward) Dylan Disu totaled seventeen points apiece, with the former drilling 4-of-6 attempts from three (60.0%) with four assists, while the latter missed just three of his eleven attempts from the floor to go along with a team-high ten rebounds. However, Rice (pictured above) made the biggest impact with a game-high twenty-three points off the bench, netting a white-hot 7-of-10 treys (70.0%) to go along with six rebounds, three dimes, and a pair of steals. From a betting perspective, Texas is 18-17 against the spread overall, though 7-3 in that regard over their last ten outings regardless of the venue, while posting a 5-5 mark against the spread in their last ten trips away from Austin. With that said, being favored by the oddsmakers has been a boon to the Longhorns, who have won all but one of their past ten contests as a favorite, while covering the line in eight of them, including five straight. Furthermore, they have covered six consecutive games when facing an opponent with a straight-up winning record, which is obviously the case tonight. A win tonight will vault the ‘Horns into territory that they haven’t charted in quite some time, reaching the second weekend of the big dance for the first time since 2008 when they advanced all the way to the Elite Eight.