Date: Tuesday January 14th
Location: Crisler Center; Ann Arbor, MI
Penn State Nittany Lions (9-8, 0-4)
Season so far: Penn State basketball continues to be Penn State basketball, as the Nittany Lions once again have a disappointing start to a season and a winless Big Ten record midway through January.
Penn State's best wins at the moment are a home win vs. La Salle by seven points and a neutral court win vs. St. Johns that went into overtime after Penn State nearly blew its lead late. The Nittany Lions have started off the Big Ten year in a rut, losing games to Michigan State and Illinois by double digits and the dropping the last two against Minnesota and Indiana by a combined six points.
Penn State, despite the rough start to the year and Big Ten play, is a much more efficient team this year than last. That is in large part due to the return of Tim Frazier to the lineup (about which, more later). The Nittany Lions are one of the better teams in the nation at limiting turnovers, just a few spots after Michigan, and the shooting numbers are way up from last year.
There are really two of them to know, and the first is the aforementioned Tim Frazier (6'1 Sr.), Penn State's jack of all trades point guard who played just four games last year. He has bounced back to full form this year and is having his most efficient offensive season to date. With 50/32/79 shooting splits and a FT rate of 57.7, he is a threat to score just about anywhere, and his assist rate is 14th nationally at 37.5. He is going to be a matchup nightmare for Derrick Walton.
Of course, in Frazier's stead last year, DJ Newbill (6'4 Jr.) stepped into the spotlight and carried the offense, and with him back, Penn State has a really talented backcourt. With Frazier to draw defensive forcus away, Newbill is having a really good year shooting from the floor, hitting 43% from outside and 52% from 2pt — numbers on par with his time at Southern Miss before his transfer.
Since, as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats, Penn State has gotten nice seasons so far from its forwards, Ross Travis (6'6 Jr.) and Brandon Taylor (6'7 So.). Travis spends more time on the inside and actually leads Penn State in both OR% and DR%. Forty percent of Taylors shots are 2pt jumpers and 30% more are 3PA, so MIchigan will need to get a hand in his face.
Donovan Jack (6'9 So.) will also be tough to defend for Michigan as he takes half his shots at the rim and hits them at a rate of 60% while another 35% of his shots come as 3PA which he hits at a rate of 46%. He is also heavily reliant on his teammates for both of those (73% of shots at the rim assisted and 92% of his 3PA are assisted), so if Michigan cheats to stop Frazier, Jack is a big worry.
Keys for Michigan: If you want to spend time searching your memory for low points to the 2012-13 season, the two regular season games against Penn State probably qualify (or are at least strongly in the running). In the first game Michigan barely survived, and two games later when the teams met again Michigan handed Penn State its first conference win of the year.
A big part of this was defense, where Michigan was routinely victimized by ball screens on the outside allowing Penn State to get into the lane and generate good shot attempts. If you watched the Nebraska game then don't worry, that tightness in your chest you feel right now is a natural reaction to connecting these two dots with the return of Tim Frazier.
The story of this game will be how Michigan defends. The Wolverines can score and will score. The Wolverine offense did so at 1.2 and 1.13 ppp last year in those two games and still lost the latter because it allowed Penn State to score 1.22 ppp (Penn State's offense finished the season scoring just 1.01 ppp). Rebounding shouldn't be a big issue this year as Michigan has handled its business well enough to cope against average and below rebounding teams.
Defense, defense, defense. That will be the name of the game. Michigan is fortunate that this one is at home.
Outlook: I would like to say that I'm confident that Michigan will fix the issues that plagued it against Nebraska and kept the Cornhuskers in the game late, and that Nebraska was fired up to christen its new building as far as Big Ten play is concerned.
Still, this feels like a game that will be closer than expected. Kenpom has Michigan winning by 13 points, and Michigan has the luxury of playing this one at home (as well as this being the only game against Penn State). That I am this scared about the Nittany Lions is a combination of bad memories of last year and poor defense against Nebraska.
Michigan's offense can score against this Penn State defense. Can Derrick Walton consistently check Tim Frazier? Will someone box out Ross Travis this time? For the love of god can Michigan keep Penn State from getting into the late at will?
Game previews are supposed to give you answers to questions, but right now this feels like a bad matchup for the Wolverines. Michigan should win, but it won't be easy and it will be close.