Penn State at No. 2 Michigan Preview: Nittany Lions Open Challenging Stretch in Ann Arbor

By Chad Markulics on January 3, 2019 at 10:30 am
Nov 28, 2018; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein talks to forward Ignas Brazdeikis (13) in the first half against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Crisler Center.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan Wolverines
No. 2 Michigan Wolverines
13-0 (2-0 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
7 p.m. ET - Thursday, January 3
Crisler Center
Ann Arbor, MI
Watch Info: ESPN/WatchESPN I Gametracker
KenPom Rank: 4
Vegas Line: UM -11.5

Penn State's non-conference slate is over. It didn't go according to plan, despite featuring their biggest non-conference win in years against Virginia Tech. The Nittany Lions lost four non-league games to three teams rated lower than them in KenPom's ratings and went 2-4 away from the friendly confines of the BJC. They also put themselves behind the eight ball with two early December conference losses to Maryland and Indiana. The latter game was particularly hard to swallow as they missed 15 free throws in a two-point loss. All in all, not a December to remember for the Nittany Lions.

The double-edged sword of the 20-game Big Ten schedule begins tonight, however. The conference is having a renaissance year after a down 2018 - eight teams grace the KenPom top-30 and seven are currently ranked the AP Top 25. It's going to be a gauntlet of a schedule for every team, and for Penn State that comes with the risk of getting badly exposed and the possible reward of an NCAA Tournament berth with a .500 record.

That gauntlet begins tonight in Ann Arbor against one of the nation's four remaining undefeated teams. Michigan has already smothered Villanova at Finneran Pavilion and steamrolled North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge - needless to say this is a team with their sights set on a regular season conference championship.

Projected Starters
Penn State   Michigan
Rasir Bolton - 6'2" - Fr. 1 Zavier Simpson - 6'0" - Jr.
Myles Dread - 6'4" - Fr. 2 Jordan Poole - 6'5" - Soph.
Josh Reaves - 6'5" - Sr. 3 Charles Matthews - 6'6" - Sr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Jr. 4 Ignas Brazdeikis - 6'7" - Fr.
Mike Watkins - 6'9" - RS Jr. 5 Jon Teske - 7'1" - Jr.

Patrick Chambers' experimentation with the starting five continued last week in Penn State's home win over UMBC. Trent Buttrick made his first career start as a reward for his perfect shooting night against Alabama but played just 11 minutes total. If the hot hand gets the call, expect Myles Dread (3-5 from deep against UMBC) to be recalled to the starting five.

Scouting Report

If there were a spectrum between evil genius and wizard, John Beilein would sit at the midpoint. Forever rightfully touted as an offensive genius who got the most out of his talent, Beilein seemingly up and decided last year that he was going to turn his squad into a defensive juggernaut. And lo and behold, Michigan has had a top-five defense since the beginning of last season. It won them a second consecutive conference tournament championship and another appearance in the NCAA title game.

Michigan does not allow you to score on the inside and does not let you grab offensive rebounds. Combine that philosophy with a bulldog of point defender in Zavier Simpson, a plethora of quick-twitch wing defenders, and the third Clegane brother manning the paint, and you have a recipe for frustrating the crap out of opponents when they have the ball.

Oh by the way, the Wolverines still have a top-25 offense. Ignas "Iggy" Brazdeikis is either a ton of fun to watch or the most loathsome basketball player on earth depending on how stressed out you are when you watch Michigan play. The Canadian freshman averages a team-high 16.5 points per game, scoring efficiently from all three levels. Jordan Poole and reigning West Regional Most Outstanding Player Charles Matthews shoot like crazy and dunk like crazy, respectively, to the tune of double figures. Simpson isn't much of a threat to do either but more than makes up for it with six assists per game on average.

Keys to the Game

Michigan does not play the three-point lottery on defense. Just 27.7 percent of their opponents' points have come via threes this season (D-I average is 31.6 percent per KenPom). Thankfully for Penn State, their best player is very comfortable from mid-range and in. The Lions didn't play in Ann Arbor last season, but in his freshman year Lamar Stevens scored 16 points in 19 minutes, then put up another 19 last season at the BJC. The mid-range will be available all night long, on purpose.

Mike Watkins will also have a tough assignment against 7'1" Jon Teske. Watkins has yet to find consistency, showing flashes against mid-majors but disappearing with foul trouble just as often. A strong defensive performance against Teske will be a big help as well.

Prediction

It's hard to see anything other than a blowout win in Michigan's first meaningful game in about month. The Wolverines have their eyes on the prize and there's not much to suggest Penn State is up for this particular task. It'd be a mild shocker to see the Nittany Lions break 50, but hey, we're optimists here. Michigan 71, Penn State 53.

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