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Penn State vs. North Florida Preview: Nittany Lions Raising a Banner and Expectations

North Florida Ospreys
0-0 (0-0 Atlantic Sun Conference)
7:30 p.m. ET – FRIDAY, NOV. 9
KenPom Rank: 226
KenPom Line: PSU -21

The college basketball season began on Tuesday night for a change, but Penn State’s attempt to extend their active winning streak to six games will come on Friday night. The reigning NIT champions will raise a banner in the Bryce Jordan Center to honor last season’s team before taking the court against the Ospreys of North Florida. The first game in the post-Tony Carr and Shep Garner era, this contest might’ve carried more intrigue if we didn’t already get our first glimpse at the freshmen in the backcourt last Friday in Morgantown. Rasir Bolton and Myles Dread’s competitive debuts will nonetheless be highly anticipated by the home crowd, as will the return to action for Josh Reaves and Lamar Stevens.

The heroes of the NIT run and undisputed leaders of this year’s squad have some unfinished business to attend to with Carr now turned pro. No Nittany Lions have shied away from stating their NCAA Tournament goals. Pat Chambers scheduled a non-conference slate featuring few cupcake opponents with this in mind. North Florida sounds like a typical cupcake, but their experience profile reads like a team capable of pulling an opening night upset.

Projected Starters
Penn State   North Florida
Jamari Wheeler – 6’1″ – Soph. 1 Ivan Gandia-Rosa – 6’1″ – Jr.
Myles Dread – 6’4″ – Fr. 2 J.T. Escobar – 6’2″ – Jr.
Josh Reaves – 6’5″ – Sr. 3 Garrett Sams – 6’7″ – Jr.
Lamar Stevens – 6’8″ – Jr. 4 Wajid Aminu – 6’7″ – Jr. 
John Harrar – 6’8″ – Soph. 5 Noah Horchler – 6’8″ – Jr.

No need for the Nittany Lions to change a thing from their rotation in the West Virginia exhibition. Mike Watkins will continue to be held out for the foreseeable future per Chambers’ press conference on Wednesday. Expect to see Trent Buttrick back up John Harrar at the five.

Scouting Report

North Florida head coach Matthew Driscoll returns his entire starting lineup and seven of his eight-man rotation from a year ago. Five of those Ospreys averaged double-figure points per game in 2018. The balanced attack was spearheaded by lead guard Ivan Gandia-Rosa, scorer of 13.8 points per contest last season in addition to his high-level distribution (6.2 assists per game). Gandia-Rosa had a quiet night in UNF’s 78-70 loss at Dayton with just six points and five assists to three turnovers.

Big man Noah Horchler carried the load in the losing effort with 19 points and 12 rebounds. He’s got a little range at 6’8″, hitting 2 of 4 from behind the arc on Wednesday in Ohio and 37% of his two-plus attempts per game from deep last season. The Ospreys’ biggest threat from three is J.T. Escobar, who isn’t out there to do much but spot up. He does it efficiently though, connecting on 43% of his attempts last season. Driscoll has some experienced pieces to tinker with, if that’s not clear.

Well, at least on offense. North Florida was 345th nationally last season in adjusted defense, giving up 80+ points to all but one of their D-I non-conference opponents, including a season-high 109 against Penn State’s NIT semi-final opponent, Mississippi State.

Keys to the Game

Despite North Florida’s offense and experience, no Atlantic Sun team should pose many problems for a team of Penn State’s defensive caliber. Ignoring their current status as KenPom’s projected eighth-ranked defense in the nation, this core of Nittany Lions have put defending first for the past two seasons. That shouldn’t change on Friday night. The offense should flow from there, just as it did in the first half against West Virginia – stops lead to transition offense, and Penn State’s guards sure looked good in transition last weekend.


Opening night against Albany in 2016 seems so distant after last season’s breakthrough. It’s hard to imagine a repeat performance against a lesser opponent. Penn State should cruise – I’ll say by a score of 85-66 with a backdoor cover for good measure – so here’s some bonus predictions:

  • Slim and trim John Harrar bottles up Horchler
  • Bolton scores 20 points and turns the ball over less than three times
  • Lots of yams. Good to have you back, hoops.

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