Matchup: Michigan 13-5, (3-3); Penn State 14-5, (3-3)
TV/radio: Big Ten Network; WWJ-AM (950), WTKA-AM (1050)
Tip-off: 9 p.m., Bryce Jordan Center, State College, Pa.
Line: Penn State by 2.
Two straight conference losses will take their toll on a team. After getting pounded inside by Illinois and Ohio State in back to back contests, Michigan takes on another surprising and vastly improved Big Ten team in Penn State.
At 14-5 the Lions are light years ahead of where anyone in their right mind thought they'd be this season. During the Big Ten/ACC tournament the Lions knocked off heavily favored Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and they've topped Purdue in Happy Valley. Not too shabby. But the Lions schedule is one of the weakest in the Big Ten, posted a woeful Ken Pomeroy schedule ranking of 222 and a non-conf schedule ranking of 322! By the way, their RPI is 86. Penn State has feasted on the lower end of the D-1 platter, making their most impressive win after Purdue, their victory over Northwestern. So, yeah, there's an opportunity here.
If there's a team in the Big Ten that Michigan actually matches up against, it's Penn State. For the first time in a week, Michigan won't face a 9 foot corn stalk in the middle of the floor. The tallest guy on PSU's team that sees any minutes is Andrew Jones III, a 6-9 forward who is second on the team in rebounding at 5.2 a game, but doesn't have a lot of offensive capability. What Jones does is fill time for Penn State's more dominant post player, 6-5 Jamelle Cornley. Cornley's failed to score in double figures just twice this season, and went for 26 against Michigan State when the Lions almost upset the Spartans a week ago. Despite his height, Cornley's a load under the basket and isn't afraid to take the ball up strong. As a result, he's taken 79 Free Throws this season, but made only 58% of them.
While Cornley is the inside, the outside belongs to Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle. Battle is definitely the more intriguing of the pair, though they're both damn good ball players. Battle is generously listed at 5-10, but it's the same as saying Kelivn Grady is 6-0. It's a lie. What Battle is, however, is aggressive. In the PSU games I've watched Battle has no reservations about putting the ball up from anywhere on the court. He's averaging 13 shots a game with around 7 of those shots being three point attempts. And he's not just content on the perimeter. Battle takes the ball to the rim with some consistency, as witnessed by his 122 FT attempts this season. (For comparison's sake, Manny Harris has taken only 116 FT). Battle's done a fairly good job of filling the bucket, shooting 43% FG and 40% from three. He's scored 19 or more points eleven times this year and has four 20+ point games in his last seven contests. He's short, but he's fast. To be honest, I'm not sure who's matching up with him. (probably LLP).
Pringle's another smallish guard who loves to shoot from the outside. Pringle doesn't attack the basket the same way that Battle does, but he really doesn't have to. Pringle's shooting 50% from three on 78 attempts. Again, for compairson Manny Harris has 82 three-point attempts and shooting 34%. Do the math and you'll figure out where Pringle's points are coming from. Pringle likes his jump shots, and oddly, he's a little better outside the arc than inside it, averaging around 46% when shooting for two. Those aren't number to sneeze at. Honestly, if he took a few more shots, he'd easily be leading the team in scoring, but seems content to play third fiddle for some reason. I've seen him go in and out of games. Pouring in points one moment and disappearing for long stretches before erupting again. It's worth noting that Pringle really is the Lion's barmometer. When he's scoring, PSU usually wins. When he's cold, as he was against MSU and Minnesota, PSU loses. Somehow I see Harris on him like glue the whole game.
With the aforementioned threesome averaging over 14 a piece, there's not a lot of ancillary scoring. Guard Danny Morrissey, Forward David Jackson, and 6-8 forward Jeff Brooks fill out the majority of the minutes with Jones III. Morrissey fancies himself a three point specialist, with 75 of his 98 FTAs being three pointers. But Morrissey's aim hasn't been the best, he's shooting just 32% from behind the arc. Still, he's a three point threat, so we've gotta watch him. Jackson and Brooks are inside 15 feet players, and put in between 18 and 20 minutes a game, a couple of rebounds and 4 points or so a piece. I don't expect them to hurt us, but if they do, throw things at the TV because we're in trouble.
Michigan's going through a horrendous drought from the floor right now that really shows no sign of abating. I'm willing to guess that 90% of that is playing teams that are a foot taller than they are and having to defend them down low. Fortunately, Penn State isn't that type of team so Michigan shouldbe able to play "their" game rather than expend extra energy trying to keep Tisdale/Mullens out of the lane.
But for Michigan to pull out a win, they're going to have to pick better shots. Michigan is the Big Ten's second-worst shooting team, at 43%, and the second-worst from three-point range, hitting just 33.8%.That's not good. Honestly, it sucks. But the key to fixing this is fairly evident: move your ass. Over the last three games Michigan has gone from out working their opponents to getting worked over. No one is moving without the ball and everyone is standing around outside the arc looking for an open three pointer to drop into their lap. Unfortunately when it doesn't appear, they're taking contested three pointers instead of doing the work to get down low and actually set up an open shot.
DeShawn Sims looks whipped right now. Just out of steam. 4 games in 10 days does that to a kid, but so does defending guys six inches taller than him. Michigan's got to take some of the pressure off Sims on the defensive end against opposing bigs, and PSU's lack of height might just do that. I expect Sims to return to his usual self and pot 7 buckets tonight, or at least shot a better percentage than his current 7-for-27 slump.
Manny will be Manny, but his supporting cast needs to step up. Novak continues to search for his shot, as do Grady and LLP. If Douglas can continue to knock back critical three's, keep him in the lineup, but I have to admit I prefer Novak's defense to Stu's.
If Michigan actually moves without the ball and creates their own opportunities, they can walk out of Penn State with a win. Stand around and pick their nose like they have the last two games and Michigan's looking at a 3-4 record and a nasty hill to climb for an NCAA invite.
See you tonight at the Open Thread.