Two short weeks ago, the Michigan basketball team was just coming off an embarrassing 23-point loss at the hands of arch rival Michigan State, their third downfall in four games and fourth conference defeat. The Spartans and the Hoosiers of Indiana both stood two full games ahead of the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings, and any chances of Michigan repeating as conference champions looked slim at best. My oh my, what can happen in such a short time.
Tonight, Michigan travels to Penn State in control of their own destiny, a seemingly distant dream just last week, after Michigan State lost two in a row and Indiana fell at the hands of the Minnesota Gophers last night. To win the Big Ten, Michigan still has plenty of work to do, however, and before both MSU and IU travel to Ann Arbor, the Wolverines need to take care of business tonight in Happy Valley. Here are three quick thoughts for the matchup:
- Defend the Pick-and-Roll: Last Sunday, Penn State went to the Crisler Center and gave Michigan everything they could handle, holding a lead for much of the first half and staying within striking distance throughout. The key to their success was something that has hounded Michigan’s defense all year – the pick-and-roll. Guards D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall continuously used screens to break wide open into the lane on their way to scoring a combined 28 points on 16 shots and exploited Michigan’s strong hedges by dishing the ball to an uncovered Sasa Borovnjak time and time again, helping him score 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. John Beilein is known to defend the pick-and-roll by using the screener’s defender (usually a big man, like Jordan Morgan or Mitch McGary) to hedge (or help defend) the opposing guard using the screen. When the big man hedges, the screener will then typically roll to the basket. At that point, Michigan’s defense needs to help out the big man who is hedging by sliding over and covering the rolling big man. This is almost always going to leave someone open for an instant, but strong help defense and quick recoveries are the easier-said-than-done way of defending the ball screen. Tonight, Michigan needs to help off their defenders when a big man rolls to the basket without worrying about the two wings that will usually be camped behind the three-point line. For some teams, that would be asking to be beat, but the Nittany Lions really struggle to shoot the ball, coming into this game at 28.3 percent from downtown. Nick Colella is the only regular who is even respectable from three, and he only shoots 34.6 percent himself. A strong pick-and-roll defense should shut down the majority of Penn State’s offense and give Michigan an easy win.
- Jordan Morgan’s Health: Ever since going down to a nasty ankle sprain at Ohio State in January, Jordan Morgan has been less than 100 percent to say the least. Against Illinois, he finally played double digit minutes for the first time in more than a month, shoring up Michigan’s defense and rebounding significantly. There is no doubt now that Morgan is the Wolverine’s best big defender, and while he has yet to score the ball consistently since his injury, his on-court presence is going to be huge for Michigan both tonight and down the stretch. Trey Burke quipped after Sunday’s win that the redshirt junior out of Detroit seemed to be at 99.9 percent. If Morgan can get back to full health, Michigan’s chances of running the table to close out conference play increase dramatically. For Morgan, a nice, easy win over Penn State tonight should help.
- Focus, Focus, Focus: The reason you probably don’t know a whole lot about Penn State is pretty simple: they are terrible and no one is talking about them. Tim Frazier, a preseason All-Big Ten point guard, went down early in the season with a torn ACL, and what’s left of Pat Chambers’s squad is unimpressive, to say the least. They have lost an astounding 14 straight games and have not sniffed victory since 2012. They shoot a conference-worst 38.8 percent from the field and turn the ball over 13 times a night. Needless to say, this is a game Michigan should win comfortably. Before you decide to skip tonight’s game, however, there is more to be said about the fight in this team. Chambers is a fiery coach who is certainly not letting his team pack it in for the rest of the season, and his guys have responded in a big way, losing by an average of just five points per game over their last three (Iowa, at Michigan, at Illinois). The Big Ten is a roughshod league, and Penn State clearly doesn’t have the talent to match up with the nation’s best teams, but they are going to give everything they have to try to make up for their loss in Ann Arbor and give themselves something to hang their hats on. With games against Michigan State and Indiana just around the corner for Michigan, John Beilein needs to make sure that his team is absolutely focused on tonight’s game, or else the classic trap game could jump up on them.
Prediction: Penn State’s confidence is pretty high right now after sticking with three good teams, but they are also probably a little down on themselves for not pulling any game out. Michigan, on the other hand, is feeling rejuvenated after receiving plenty of help from Indiana, Ohio State, and Minnesota and should be prepared to put Penn State away early. Trey Burke continues his torrid pace and Nik Stauskas gets back on track with 15 points as Michigan coasts to an 81-64 win.