No. 2 Michigan 68, Penn State 55: Lions Struggle to Generate Offense Against Big Ten Favorites

By Dan Smith on January 3, 2019 at 9:30 pm
Jan 3, 2019; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines guard Jordan Poole (2) dribbles defended by Penn State Nittany Lions guard Josh Reaves (23) in the first half at Crisler Center.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
  1st half 2nd half final
Penn State 20 35 55
Michigan 25 43 68

A road trip to face the No. 2 team in the country was about the last thing Penn State needed to start the 2019 portion of its schedule. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they encountered Thursday night, and the game went about as expected, with the second-ranked Michigan Wolverines dominating the second half to comfortably win 68-55.

After scoring on the opening possession of the second half to cut Michigan's lead to three, Penn State was largely non-competitive the rest of the way. Michigan head coach John Beilein appeared to crack the code of getting by the Nittany Lions defense at the half, and they tired out Mike Watkins within the first 7 minutes of the half, building a 47-31 lead at the under-12 timeout.

Things failed to build from there. A 9-2 run sparked by a Myles Dread bank-three and some good post moves by Lamar Stevens and Watkins could not propel Penn State back into the game in any significant way, only cutting the lead to nine in a game where points were at a premium.

Penn State had played an excellent defensive first half. Michigan scored at times because they are very talented, but it was not an array of easy shots. The Nittany Lions forced turnovers (eight, with five steals), blocked shots (three), and contested most of the looks the Wolverines had. The result was a manageable five point deficit at the break, with Michigan leading 25-20.

Michigan was led by its trio of stars. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis led the way with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. Jordan Poole was the hosts' top scorer, finishing with 17 points. And Charles Matthews chipped in 14 points, 5 boards, 2 steals, and a block.

Like most games, Penn State's ultimate fate was sealed by its offense. Watching the 2018-19 Penn State offense is to feel hungover for two hours. They struggle to get open shots, and even when they do they miss those shots. No one can shoot (the Nittany Lions were 1-14 from three in this game, 7.1 percent) and the opposing defense knows it, leaving opponents content to contest every look anywhere near the rim.

  Poss PPP eFG% OReb% TO% FTRate
Penn State 72 0.77 43.0% 21.2% 25.1% 15.8
Michigan 0.95 50.0% 9.1% 14.0% 34.5

Watkins led the way for the team, fighting through his still-limited conditioning. He finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal in 26 minutes, easily his best effort since injuring his leg against the Wolverines last February. Stevens came alive in the second half and made several tough baskets, adding 17 points and 10 rebounds while playing the entire game. It was also a particularly brutal night for freshman point guard Rasir Bolton, who finished with seven turnovers in a game in which he scored just six points and recorded one assist. 

Fans should not be specifically discouraged by this loss, though. Michigan (14-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is an excellent team, one that made a national championship appearance a year ago and looks poised to compete for the title this year. And they boast the third-ranked defense in the country (via KenPom) coming into this game; they have smothered much better offenses than Penn State's.

But fans would be right to feel discouraged on the whole, with Penn State now 7-7 (0-3 Big Ten). They needed the trio of Lamar Stevens, Josh Reaves, and Mike Watkins to carry a team with unproven underclassmen, and all three have struggled to consistently make an impact. And when Bolton has his worst games, there is no one the team can rely on offensively in the backcourt to get things going, or even settle down.

Penn State returns to action Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center against No. 22 Wisconsin. The road gets no easier from there, as they play at No. 24 Nebraska and at home against No. 8 Michigan State on CBS next week. Unless Penn State can pull off an upset in one of those games, they will sit at 0-6 in Big Ten play by mid-January.