Penn State vs Michigan Preview: Can Lions Steal One Against Howard's Wolverines?

By Eric Gibson on January 22, 2020 at 10:18 am
Zavier Simpson and Juwan Howard
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan Wolverines
Michigan Wolverines
11-6 (2-4 Big Ten)
Roster / Schedule
7:00 p.m. EST - Wednesday, Jan. 22
Crisler Center
Ann Arbor, MI
Watch Info: Big Ten Network I Gametracker
KenPom Rank: 20
Vegas Line: UM -5

If Penn State wants to climb back up the Big Ten standings, they'll have a prime opportunity tonight in Ann Arbor versus Michigan. The Nittany Lions have had little success in Crisler Center since they joined the Big Ten. PSU has only won twice on the Wolverines' home floor: 1999 (78-72) and 2010 (55-51). But John Beilein decided to try his hand at the NBA this year, so this will be the first coaching showdown between Pat Chambers and Juwan Howard. 

Howard accepted his first college gig when he returned to his alma mater from the NBA over the summer. The former Fab Five member has seen some mixed performances from his team thus far. They jumped out to an impressive start after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney (which included a win over No. 2 Gonzaga). Winning that event really impressed voters early and the Wolverines jumped into the AP top-five. Since then, they have dropped six games and have fallen completely out of the rankings, but none of those would be considered a bad loss. It's worth noting they have played the fourth toughest schedule to date (including the toughest Big Ten slate). 

Projected Starters
Penn State   Michigan
Jamari Wheeler - 6'1" - Jr. 1 Zavier Simpson - 6'0" - Sr.
Myreon Jones - 6'3" - Fr. 2 Eli Brooks - 6'1" - Jr.
Seth Lundy - 6'6" - Fr. 3 Franz Wagner - 6'9" - Fr.
Lamar Stevens - 6'8" - Sr. 4 Brandon Johns Jr. - 6'8" - So.
John Harrar - 6'9" - Jr. 5 Jon Teske - 7'1" - Sr.

Michigan has been without second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers for a month now with a groin injury. Howard did not sound optimistic yesterday that Livers would return tonight. If he's sidelined, that would be a major break for the Nittany Lions, who I expect will keep the same starting lineup they changed in the past week. 

Scouting Report

While it's a new era in Ann Arbor, Beilein's fingerprints are still all over this team. They don't turn the ball over, and their 55.1 effective field goal percentage ranks ninth in the country. Michigan's offense (1.08 PPP) ranks second in efficiency during Big Ten play. However, I still find this a favorable matchup for Penn State, especially if Livers is not playing. 

Penn State's raw stats in conference play have been discouraging, particularly on the defensive end, but we know their problems have stemmed from rebounding and fouling. The Lions haven't done a good job finishing off possessions, but they do force a good share of missed shots. Here's the thing with the Wolverines: they aren't interested in the offensive glass and they don't get to the foul line. Howard's had some beef with the officiating in recent games, but UM's free throw rate ranks 336th in the nation!

Meanwhile, Michigan's biggest issues are on the defensive end. Luke Yaklich left Ann Arbor shortly after Beilein, and he must've taken the Wolverines' defense with him. They rank last in defensive efficiency in conference play, and have had significant trouble defending the interior. In five of their six Big Ten games, they've allowed a 30+ point scorer. Penn State should find open looks, but as we've seen during recent road losses, they have to hit them. 

Keys to the Game

Lamar Stevens has proven to be a tough cover for the Wolverines over his career, as he's averaged 19.5 points and 9.75 rebounds in four games against UM. Throw in Michigan's current woes protecting the rim, and Stevens should be salivating at this matchup. Truth be told, the Lions' senior leader hasn't been at his best for most of this season. But if his play follows the same trendline as his junior year, tonight is a great chance to start dominating like you'd expect from a first team All-Big Ten selection. 

The same logic applies for Mike Watkins. While I expect Watkins to come off of the bench again, he could be in for a big night as well if he stays out of foul trouble. Last year in Ann Arbor, he posted 19 points (on 11 shots), 12 rebounds and 2 blocks. Jon Teske is an experienced big who's had a great career, but if Watkins can get him in foul trouble, the basket will really open up for the Lions' offense. 

While Watkins and Stevens had great individual performances the last time they stepped foot in this arena, Penn State's backcourt was a black hole offensively. The team only made one three-pointer (out of 14 attempts) and its five guards combined for just 17 points. You can't win on the road in the Big Ten with that little production, but the Lions' guards are quite a bit older than last year's. They'll need to make some threes to keep the Wolverines' defense honest. 

Prediction

A ton has changed between these programs since the last time they met. While it seemed like the Chambers era was ending (the Lions were 1-11 before upsetting the Wolverines last February), it was actually the Beilein era that ended. With the way Juwan Howard has already recruited, it's foolish to expect Michigan to take a step back under his watch, but this sure feels like Penn State's best opportunity to get a win in Crisler.

Don't get me wrong, only a fool would predict a Big Ten road win for Penn State, but we're still taking the moneyline tonight. I am banking on Livers not playing and PSU taking advantage of a favorable matchup. They'll need to make some threes as well to avoid any 10-minute scoring droughts that plagued their last two road losses, but I think they get it done. Penn State 81, Michigan 77

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