After nearly a month of playing only one game per week due to finals and the holidays, No. 2 Michigan resumes Big Ten play and its chase for the Big Ten Championship Thursday night at home against Penn State (7-6, 0-2 Big Ten) at 7 PM inside Crisler Center.
The Nittany Lions have been a tough out for Michigan under eighth-year coach Pat Chambers. Since Chambers took over in 2011, Michigan is 9-1 against Penn State, but six of those wins have come for Michigan by just single digits, including the teams’ last two meetings (Michigan won 72-63 at Penn State in 2018, and narrowly escaped at home in 2017 with a 72-69 win.)
“Penn State over the last several years has been really difficult for us to win. We’ve been able to get some wins, but not one of them was ever easy.” John Beilein told assembled media on Wednesday at his press conference.
Beilein and Chambers have coached against each other beyond their current tenures as head coaches. Beilein and Chambers coached against each other from 2004-2007 when Beilein was the head coach at West Virginia and Chambers was an assistant to Jay Wright at Villanova when WVU and ‘Nova were foes in the Big East.
“There’s a lot of changing defense. They will play three-quarter court trap, where they will actually trap,” replied Beilein when asked what part of Chambers strategy allows PSU to keep it close against the Wolverines. “They play all kinds of zones, all kinds of man. It has always been difficult, and like I said, he has got guys that get buckets.”
The guys Beilein primarily is referring to are returning starters Lamar Stevens, Josh Reaves,?and Mike Watkins. Stevens and Reaves played key roles in Penn State’s run to the 2018 NIT Championship, with Stevens being voted the tournament’s most valuable player. Beilein rates the Nittany Lions as a much better team than their 7-6 record would suggest.
“I feel if you win the NIT Championship, I think you’re a Sweet 16 team in the NCAA. They played really well at the end with this young group, it is gonna be a tough challenge for us.” Beilein said.
As for the Wolverine players, they are eager to get back to a more normalized routine and schedule as they try and carry Michigan’s undefeated start into 2019. The Wolverines 13-0 start is their third best in school history, and the team’s best since a 16-0 start to open the 2012-13 season.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played in the Big Ten and we haven’t been playing top competition lately, so it’s gonna be a great game for us to get back in the groove,” said Big Ten Freshman of the Week Ignas Brazdeikis, who scored 21 points and collected eight rebounds against Binghamton on Sunday.
“I just found out it was the third best start.” Said sophomore Jordan Poole when asked about reaching 2019 undefeated. “I just think the guys are just so focused on getting better every day and getting as ready as possible for the next team that we are really just blocking out the outside noise, records, everything like that.”
Poole also offered his thoughts of what he has seen from Penn State on film. “They are extremely scrappy and they love defense. They are one of the teams that love to get up in you, love to push tempo. They are extremely talented like they were last year. So being able to play a team like this, where they are a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end, individually and as a unit, it is definitely gonna be exciting for us to see what we can bring.”
Michigan spent most of 2018 with a target on its back and responded well, winning 34 games spread across two seasons and winning 27 of its past 28 games. The team’s ever-cautious head coach has been reminding his players that nothing is a given in the Big Ten, and slow showings against the likes of Binghamton, Air Force, and Western Michigan won’t cut it if the Wolverines are to chase a Big Ten Championship and a National Championship.
“I think the real indication will be when we get into Big Ten play, to see how good any team is, not just Michigan… Then we will see probably who the really good teams are.” Beilein said when asked about how his young team has handled the pressure of an undefeated start and Top 5 ranking for much of the season.
“I think there was a little span there when we came off those wins and we were playing a few teams and we weren’t guarding people like they were Carsen Edwards… or like they were some of the guys from Villanova.” He analyzed. “Those bottom quadrant losses, you do not want to have, and we came close to a few.”
If the past ten games against Penn State serve as an indicator, Thursday’s matchup will be precipitously close, and dangerous for Michigan, but having survived a close shave with Northwestern one month ago 62-60, the Wolverines are aware of the perils that come with conference play.
Thursday’s game tips off at 7:00 PM on ESPN (Jason Benetti and Dan Dakich will be on the call) and is a sellout, Michigan’s seventh straight. The Wolverines play three of their next four games at home against Penn State, Indiana (Jan. 6) and Northwestern (Jan. 13)