IOWA CITY, Iowa – Probably like the rest of you, I was stunned after learning that the lowly Penn State men’s basketball team had defeated Indiana 68-63 on Feb. 6.
Unsure of where the game was played, I assumed Penn State had the benefit of playing at home, and was right.
Home-court advantage is a powerful force that can alter outcomes. It often is the difference between winning and losing, or why a game that looks like a mismatch on paper is close.
And it might be Penn State’s best weapon when it faces fourth-ranked Iowa on Wednesday at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa.
Iowa crushed Penn State 73-49 on Feb. 3 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Nittany Lions missed 19 of 20 shots from 3-point range and never put up much of a fight.
“They’re not a team that’s going to go one-for-twenty again anytime soon,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday on a teleconference. “It was just one of those nights. And you hope you never have them.”
It’s probably less likely that Penn State would shoot that poorly at home where its players are familiar with the surroundings, particularly the rims on both baskets.
The fact that Penn State is 8-3 at home and 3-8 on the road is not a coincidence or a surprise.
After the Indiana upset, Penn State had a week to prepare for its next game at Nebraska, but lost 70-54 this past Saturday. As good as the Nittany Lions were against Indiana at home, they were just as bad against Nebraska on the road.
“I don’t think it’s any different there than anywhere else,” McCaffery said of Penn State’s success at home. “Teams typically shoot it better (at home). You play with more confidence. You typically play with a little more defensive intensity. Everybody does. I don’t think it’s anything unique to Penn State. I think it’s the same everywhere.”
Iowa would defeat Penn State every time on paper this season, and probably 99 out of 100 times at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Iowa’s 24-point victory over Penn State earlier this month was its 11th in a row against the Nittany Lions at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Penn State’s last victory in Iowa City came way back Mar. 1, 2001 by a 78-73 margin.
Iowa also has won the last three games against Penn State in State College, but had lost five consecutive games at Penn State before that. Penn State has a 10-9 advantage in games played in State College.
Iowa’s last three victories in State College came by margins of two points, 12 points and four points. The Hawkeyes escaped with an 81-77 overtime victory in their last game at the Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 28, 2015.
“Penn State is always a tough place to play,” said Iowa senior guard Mike Gesell. “But we’ve been there before. We’ll be ready for that one and we’ll be locked in.”
Several of the Iowa players after Sunday’s win over Minnesota described Penn State as being a tough road trip. But it wasn’t just lip service. You could tell they meant it.
“I think part of it is the way they play,” Gesell said of Penn State. “They really want to get after you and really mix up the game. They want to set the tempo, and we’re not going to let them.”
Penn State set the tempo against Indiana, holding the Hoosiers 20 points below their per-game scoring average.
If the Nittany Lions are able to control tempo against Iowa, and shoot well from 3-point range, the Hawkeyes could be in trouble.
In addition to Penn State playing in the comfort of home, Iowa also has the burden of playing with a target on its back as the outright leader in the Big Ten standings.
“We’re looked at differently,” Iowa senior guard Anthony Clemmons said after the close call against Minnesota. “So we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. It’s our job to make sure we come in ready. We understand that we’re going to go through hard-fought games like this, a physical game versus an athletic team.
“So we’re just trying to make sure we have our minds mentally right as we go into each and every game.”
Much like the Minnesota game from this past Sunday, winning by a slim margin against Penn State won’t be enough to satisfy the few doubters that Iowa still has at this point.
There is now growing concern about Iowa’s lack of production off the bench where the Hawkeyes have been outscored 55-6 in bench points in the last two games.
It could be just part of the Big Ten grind. Three of Iowa’s top four reserves are playing in their first season, while the other (forward Dom Uhl) is just a second-year sophomore.
Following the Penn State game, Iowa will have a week off before facing the surging Wisconsin Badgers on Feb. 24th at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Defeating the Badgers probably won’t easy, but you have to like Iowa’s chances a lot better at home.