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Close-Knit Penn State Basketball Ready to Face Texas A&M

Penn State Basketball: Andrew Funk
Photo by Penn State Athletics- Andrew Funk

DES MOINES, Iowa — Jalen Pickett knows how easily Penn State basketball could have found itself anywhere but here.

When March began, Penn State had just one quality win away from State College — Dec. 10 at Illinois. The team was also coming off a monumental collapse at home against Rutgers.

Then came March 1 and a trip to Northwestern.

Within minutes, Penn State basketball was in trouble again, facing a double-digit deficit and a hostile crowd.

But Penn State wasn’t ready to see the season end. It overcame that deficit to stun the Wildcats.i

It hasn’t stopped since.

Penn State enters its first NCAA tournament since 2011 hot after five wins in six games. More importantly, it enters its first-round matchup with Texas A&M as a true team.

“That (the Northwestern game) was basically just us rallying together and showing each other we can,” Pickett said. “I think that was a moment for us, showing we can go anywhere, play in any arena and get a win. It’s been a crazy ride and we’re still trying to go.”

In Texas A&M, Penn State basketball meets a team that’s almost a continuation of what it faced in Chicago at the Big Ten tournament. No. 17 A&M ranks in the top 25 in offensive rebounds, and it gets rebounding from multiple sources. Of course, Penn State comes off of two games with Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis and Purdue’s Zach Edey, two of the nation’s best interior threats.

“It helps,” Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “We talk about the kind of shots that we need to force and everything else. You’ve got to finish it on the glass. It’s been a challenge for us. We’ve been a good defensive rebounding team all season but now you’re going to get tested by one of the best teams in the country.

“Playing Illinois, who was a good offensive rebounding team that will send a bunch of guys to the glass, similar to how Texas A&M does, and following up with Indiana, Northwestern is a really good rebounding team. Purdue is a good rebounding team. We have had a chance to practice, but you’ve got to do it. That’s the name of the game. You have to do it every single time and you can’t be satisfied with doing it once. You box out once and get a rebound. The next time it’s not okay to miss; you’ve got to continue to do it. That’s our challenge for forty minutes.”

Penn State basketball has met each challenge successfully for the past three weeks because of the culture it’s  developed. Over the course of the past two seasons, Penn State’s journey has featured players from multiple backgrounds forming as one unit, creating one of America’s most experienced teams.

“Throughout the season, you can see guys holding each other more accountable for different things that maybe we wouldn’t get on each other for in the beginning of the season,” Cam Wynter said. “That just shows you how much we trust each other and we listen to each other. These last couple games you can see the trust that we have just by holding each other accountable, whether it’s a defensive assignment or where we are supposed to be. Coach doesn’t have to get on us anymore, it’s more each other.”

In Chicago, that experience was on full display. All four of Penn State’s games in the United Center were decided by four points or fewer, and up until the final against Purdue, Penn State made the plays needed to win. Even in that loss, Penn State was the stronger side over the final five minutes, giving the team confidence that it can make its stay in Des Moines last the weekend.

“You watch this tournament every year and you see how close every game is, games you didn’t think were going to be close and games you thought were going to be close and whatnot,” Andrew Funk said. “A lot of it comes down to one possession. And just even thinking back to that and even the three weeks prior to that, we’ve been playing in very high stakes games that were very close down the stretch. Building on that experience and having that to look back on is definitely going to be important for us as we go through this tournament.”

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