Who: Penn State Nittany Lions (9-5, 0-1 B1G)
When: Saturday, January 2nd, at Noon ET (BTN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Spread: Vegas: -11 | KenPom: W, 71-60 (86% WP)
Michigan opened its Big Ten season with a much-needed road win over Illinois and has a great chance to improve to 2-0 on Saturday. A home contest against Penn State should be one of Michigan's easiest Big Ten match-ups. In fact, it's one of three conference games -- the others are home tilts against Rutgers and Minnesota -- in which KenPom gives U-M more than 75-percent odds to win. And, with a three-game stretch against Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa on deck, this can't be a contest that Michigan allows to slip away.
From a personnel standpoint, Michigan's biggest question will be how John Beilein handles the rotation at center. Ricky Doyle has started the past 11 games, but, despite making 62.2 percent of his twos, he's been more down than up because his stone hands have caused too many turnovers. On the other hand, Mark Donnal, who had developed a reputation for being weak around the rim and been demoted to the scout team, had a potential breakthrough performance against Illinois, shattering his career highs with 26 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks. Though the Illini's frontcourt presented a favorable matchup for Michigan, Donnal was more active and quicker on his feet than ever. Plus, he didn't shy away from contact in the lane. It wouldn't be a surprise if Beilein gives him the start. If Beilein doesn't, Donnal still may get the bigger chunk of minutes.
Penn State has a 9-5 record, is 119th on KenPom, and hasn't beaten a KenPom top-100 team this season (0-3). However, that doesn't mean the Nittany Lions haven't come close in recent weeks. On December 22nd, they pushed #44 Colorado to the final seconds in Las Vegas but couldn't complete the comeback, falling by a score of 71-70. Then, this past Wednesday, they had #18 Maryland on the ropes in College Park, leading by 13 points with less than seven minutes remaining, but panicked when the Terrapins made their final run and lost, 70-64. Add in that Penn State beat #124 Kent State on a neutral site between those losses, and it seems that the Lions are starting to play their best ball.
On offense, Penn State is mediocre for D-I hoops but bad for the Big Ten. PSU is 174th in adjusted efficiency (102.4), which is the third-worst in the conference ahead of only Nebraska (177th) and Rutgers (297th). The Nittany Lions struggle because they have a tough time putting the ball in the bucket. They're 269th in eFG% (46.6 pct.), making 47.1 percent of their twos (219th) and 30.5 percent of their threes (298th). This may be because Penn State tries to score off the dribble often, assisting on only 39.6 percent of its made field goals (346th), though PSU takes good care of the ball (58th in TO%). Lastly, the Lions are average on the glass (146th in OR%) and getting to the line (150th in FTR).
Penn State is better on defense, ranking 84th overall and eighth in the Big Ten in adjusted efficiency (98.4). Shooting is what holds back PSU's offense, but defending shots is the strength of its defense (55th in eFG%) because PSU protects the rim. The Nittany Lions have allowed opponents to make only 41.9 percent of their twos (23rd) and only 46.9 percent of their shots at the rim (8th), which is thanks in part to their ability to block shots (31st in blk%). However, they're not very disciplined in this endeavor, committing lots of shooting fouls (303rd in FTR). And they're nothing better than OK at forcing turnovers (203rd in TO%) and defensive rebounding (154th in D%). So it really boils down to whether Penn State can defend the basket and whether it can do so cleanly.
He's not its leading scorer (14.9 PPG), but 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Shep Garner is the player to watch for Penn State. He is one of the Nittany Lions' more efficient offensive players (110.5 ORtg) because he is a dangerous three-point shooter (40.5 pct.) and can create those looks for himself -- only 64.7 percent of his made threes have been assisted. However, once Garner is inside the three-point line, it gets sour. He's made only 38.3 percent of his twos and, notably, only 20.6 percent of his two-point jumpers. Further, Garner may lead PSU in assists (2.6 APG), but, like the rest of his team, he's not much a distributor (16.3 ast%). His damage on offense comes from his three-point shot.
The guard starting alongside Garner is 6-foot-4 freshman Josh Reaves, who was a four-star prospect from the prestigious Oak Hill Academy. Reaves makes his mark on the defensive end for Penn State. He owns the best steal rate on the team (3.1 pct.) and his block rate (4.7 pct.) easily is the best in the Big Ten among players listed shorter than 6-foot-6. Where he doesn't make his mark -- or at least not a good one -- is on offense, where he possesses a rating of 89.0 because, if he's not getting to the rim (44.7 2P%), he's misfiring on his perimeter jump-shots (3-of-29 3P). Clearly, shooting is not his forte.
Penn State starts two 6-foot-6 forwards: senior Brandon Taylor and sophomore Payton Banks. Taylor is the Lions' leading scorer (16.1 PPG) because he has such a high usage rate (29.2 pct.). As for how the senior gets those points, he gets better the further away from the hoop he is. He's converted less than half of his shots at the rim but knocked down 47.2 percent of his two-point jumpers and 36.2 percent of his threes. Also, Taylor has shown a newfound ability to get to the charity stripe (42.0 FTR), where he makes 67.6 percent of his freebies. On the other hand, Banks, who averages 11.7 PPG, improves as he gets closer to the rim. He's finished 52.2 percent of his twos but only 24.5 percent of his threes. Also, Taylor (17.7 DR%) and Banks (15.6 DR%) are solid defensive rebounders.
At center, 7-foot-1 senior Jordan Dickerson is the anchor of Penn State's defense. He leads the Big Ten in block rate (12.9 pct.), and his presence inside is why opponents have not had much success shooting inside the arc. However, he averages only 18.1 MPG because his proclivity for lunging after shots gets him into foul trouble (7.4 FC/40). In fact, Dickerson has been whistled for at least four fouls in each of his last four games and has fouled out twice this season. And, when Dickerson is on the floor, his impact on offense is limited. Yes, he can be a nuisance on the offensive glass (9.9 OR%), but he gets very few touches (10.7 usg%) and is just so-so at finishing layups near the rim (50.0 2P%).
Off the bench, Penn State will have two big men relieve Dickerson: 6-foot-9 senior Donovan Jack and 6-foot-10 sophomore Julian Moore. Jack earns his points around the rim, where he's Penn State's best finisher (60.9 pct.) and draws fouls (67.4 FTR), though he can step back and hit the occasional three (3-of-8 3P). He's a great candidate to hack rather than surrender a layup to because he's connected on only 48.3 percent of his free throws. Moore earns his points inside (51.0 2P%) as well, but he'll attempt and drill mid-range jumpers rather than threes. Moore also is a great rebounder on both ends (10.4 O% and 15.9 DR%) and can be a shot-blocker (4.8 blk%) that harasses opposing offenses.
Two other reserves that should see some time on the court are 6-foot-2 senior guard Devin Foster and 6-foot-6 freshman forward Deividas Zemgulis, who was a three-star recruit. Foster has floundered on offense because he essentially only puts his head down and attacks the rack, where he makes just 41.7 percent of his shots and turns the ball over too much (24.6 pct.). On the other hand, Zemgulis recently may have found his offensive rhythm, having tallied a total of 19 points (7-of-10 FG) in 35 minutes in his last two games.
Get Jordan Dickerson into Foul Trouble: Penn State's 7-foot-1 giant is the centerpiece of what is a very good two-point defense because of his length and shot-blocking, but he's susceptible to picking up lots of fouls. Michigan needs to attack him with the hope that the officials will whistle Dickerson early and often, forcing Pat Chambers to root him to the bench. If that happens, the interior won't feel as congested, providing Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton more space to penetrate the paint to score layups, drop the ball off to a rejuvenated Mark Donnal, or kick it out to open snipers on the perimeter for threes.
Play Tight on Shep Garner: The Penn State point guard's best attribute is draining threes, even off the dribble. However, Garner is not a proficient scorer inside the arc or a feared passer. Derrick Walton, who most likely will draw Garner as his defensive matchup, needs to press up on Garner. If Walton doesn't give much room on the outside, Garner may feel compelled to try his luck scoring the ball inside, which shouldn't go too well and would keep the Lions' best three-point shooter away from downtown.
Don't Get Caught Looking Ahead: It's easy to expect that Michigan should win comfortably tomorrow. Not only are the Nittany Lions not a top-100 team, the game will be played in Ann Arbor. And, with a stretch of games against Purdue, Maryland, and Iowa -- all top-20 teams -- upcoming, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Wolverines worried more about those matchups. However, that would be a mistake. Penn State is not the most skilled or talented team, but PSU plays hard every game and seems to get better each and every week. Maryland almost was caught napping at home in its Big Ten opener against Penn State on Wednesday. Michigan doesn't want to be in the same predicament.
This feels like a trap game for Michigan. The Wolverines feel good after their road win over Illinois, are aware that a tough three-game stretch begins next week, and likely know that this should be a comfortable win against Penn State, particularly at home. However, the Nittany Lions have played some of their best ball as of late, and, after coming so close to landing a huge upset against Maryland, they won't be intimidated by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Behind Jordan Dickerson, whom Michigan will have issues getting into foul trouble, Penn State's interior defense will cause Michigan's offense to sputter in the first half. But the Wolverines will do just enough to pull out the victory.
Michigan 67, Penn State 61