Who: Penn State Nittany Lions (11-10, 2-6 Big Ten)
When: Saturday, January 30th, at Noon ET (BTN)
Where: Madison Square Garden -- New York, N.Y.
This will be Michigan's final "breather" before it begins one of its most formidable stretches -- four ranked opponents in six games -- to start February, but this will be no ordinary breather. Rather than Michigan and Penn State finishing their series in Happy Valley after the Wolverines won the first meeting, 79-56, in Ann Arbor, the two basketball teams will square off in the inaugural B1G Super Saturday at Madison Square Garden before the schools' hockey teams do the same later in the evening.
Madison Square Garden may be "The Mecca," but this game won't be nearly as grand. Michigan is in the hunt for a Big Ten title, sitting just one game out of first place in the standings, but the Wolverines aren't considered a true contender at the moment. They have benefited from a soft first half schedule and won't have their candidacy truly tested until next month. On the other side, Penn State is on pace to have six conference wins or fewer for the fifth straight season under Pat Chambers. Thus, despite the aura of MSG, there won't be much interest in this contest from folks unaffiliated with either program.
The one thing that could spike interest is if Caris LeVert, who's missed seven straight games with a "lower left leg" injury, makes his return to the court. However, John Beilein provided his usual update on Friday, and the prospect of LeVert being back is unlikely.
Since Michigan last saw Penn State, things haven't improved much for the Lions. They have won only two of their last six games, making their record 11-10 (2-6 Big Ten). Those two wins were against Minnesota at home and at Northwestern, the latter of which being their only win against a school in KenPom's top 100 (#97). That's not to say they haven't competed with teams of Michigan's caliber, but they are #147 on KenPom for a reason.
On offense, Penn State is mediocre for D-I hoops but bad for the Big Ten. PSU is 187th in adjusted efficiency (101.9), which is the third-worst in the conference ahead of only Minnesota (201st) and Rutgers (307th). The Nittany Lions struggle because they have a tough time putting the ball in the bucket. They're 294th in eFG% (46.5 pct.), making 47.4 percent of their twos (220th) and 29.9 percent of their threes (327th). This may be because Penn State tries to score off the dribble often, assisting on only 41.8 percent of its made field goals (345th), though PSU takes care of the ball (83rd in TO%). Lastly, PSU is below-average on the glass (218th in OR%) and okay at getting to the line (134th in FTR).
On defense, Penn State has suffered some due to the rigors of Big Ten play. Last time the two teams met, PSU was 84th in adjusted efficiency (98.4). Today, PSU is 105th (100.1). The biggest change has been the Lions' shooting defense, which has fallen from 55th to 130th in eFG%. They might be 57th in two-point defense and 48th in block rate, but they haven't protected the rim as well against Big Ten opponents, ranking eighth and sixth in the league in those categories, respectively. Plus, they still are not disciplined in this endeavor, committing lots of shooting fouls (245th in FTR). Nonetheless, Penn State's biggest defensive issue is on the perimeter, where all opponents have made 37 percent of their threes (285th) and Big Ten opponents have made 38.9 percent (12th in B1G). Remember: Michigan drilled 14-of-25 treys the first time. And PSU is nothing better than average at forcing turnovers (212th in TO%) and defensive rebounding (136th in DR%).
On Saturday, Penn State may be without its two starting guards: 6-foot-1 sophomore Shep Garner and 6-foot-4 freshman Josh Reaves. Garner, who averages 13.5 PPG but has struggled mightily in his last four games, rolled his ankle on Monday against Ohio State, and his status for tomorrow is uncertain, Pat Chambers told the media on Thursday. Reaves likely will miss his fifth straight game after being diagnosed with mononucleosis. Rather than rehash these players' statistical bios in this space since they might not participate, read what I wrote about them in my first Penn State preview.
Their replacements could be 6-foot-2 senior Devin Foster and 6-foot-3 freshman Isaiah Washington, neither of which is a good distributor. Foster made his first career start last game, posting just six points on 3-of-6 shooting in 32 minutes. He's a low-usage player (12.8 pct.) that tends to put his head down and drive to the rim, where he either converts at a poor rate (44.7 2P%) or draws a whistle (72.9 FTR, 55.8 FT%). Washington has played very little this season but may be thrust into a starting role. However, it wouldn't be a surprise if Penn State opted to go big because Washington is a terrible shooter (28.6 eFG%) and doesn't contribute elsewhere. Simply, the Nittany Lions are thin at guard.
Assuming Penn State starts a bigger lineup, 6-foot-6 senior Brandon Taylor will slide up from forward to shooting guard. Taylor is Penn State's leading scorer (16.0 PPG) because he doesn't hesitate to shoot when he has the ball (29.4 shot%), which was the case in his first game against Michigan when he recorded a team-high 18 points on 19 shot equivalents. And, if Garner doesn't play, look for Taylor to shoot even more than usual. He is an average three-point shooter (34.5 pct.) but spends most of his time inside the arc, where he's better on the block tossing up jumpers (45.1 pct.) than trying to finish at the rim (51.6 pct.). Defensively, he is an above-average rebounder (5.8 RPG, 16.1 DR%).
The small forward should be 6-foot-6 sophomore Payton Banks, who is Penn State's third-leading scorer (10.7 PPG). Unlike Taylor, Banks is better the closer to the basket he gets, making almost 60 percent of his layups, dunks, and tip-ins, while sinking only 27 percent of his threes. Like Taylor, though, he's a very good defensive rebounder (5.1 RPG, 15.3 DR%). However, there is a chance that Banks, who has started every game this season, doesn't appear in tomorrow's contest. Chambers revealed Banks has played through a back injury for a couple of games. His status is up in the air. If Banks doesn't go, expect 6-foot-6 freshman forward Deividas Zemgulis to take some of his minutes. Zemgulis attacks the basket very well (66.7 2P%), but threes are a chore (25.8 pct.).
On the block, the Nittany Lions will rotate three different players: 6-foot-9 senior Donovan Jack, 6-foot-10 sophomore Julian Moore, and 7-foot-1 senior Jordan Dickerson, none of whom average more than 5.0 PPG. Jack is one of Penn State's better finishers around the hoop (55.6 2P%) and can step back to hit some threes (33.3 3P%), while Moore is just so-so inside five feet (50.0 2P%) and more likely to fire mid-range jumpers. Both are great defensive rebounders, and Moore excels on the offensive glass, too (7.7 OR%). Dickerson also is an excellent offensive rebounder (8.4 OR%) as well as a shot-blocker (1.4 BPG, 10.5 blk%). However, Dickerson's impact on the defensive end is limited because he can't avoid foul trouble, committing 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes. His impact is limited on the offensive end, too, even if he's made two-thirds of his shots in Big Ten play because he doesn't get many touches inside the painted area (11.1 usg%).
Stop Brandon Taylor: Due to injuries, Penn State may be without three of its four leading scorers: Shep Garner, Payton Banks, and Josh Reaves. That could leave Brandon Taylor as the only available Nittany Lion that has averaged more than 5.0 PPG. Even if Garner and Banks participate, both are banged up, putting almost all of the offense on Taylor's shoulders. Zak Irvin defended Taylor well in their first meeting, making him work hard for his 18 points, but the adjustments Penn State might make to its lineup could force another Wolverine, such as Duncan Robinson or MAAR, to defend Taylor.
Hands Up: In Big Ten play, there is only one offensive factor in which Penn State isn't ranked 11th or worse: free-throw rate. The only thing that has kept the Nittany Lion's offense afloat -- somewhat -- is their ability get to the charity stripe, shooting 39.5 free throws for every 100 field goals. That's the second-best rate in the Big Ten. The problem for Penn State is that Michigan has the best defensive free-throw rate in the Big Ten (24.9 pct.) and Mark Donnal has improved his ability to contest shots without bringing his arms down. If that continues tomorrow, points will be a premium for Penn State.
Get Jordan Dickerson into Foul Trouble: Opponents have been able to bomb Penn State from deep, especially in conference play (38.9 3P%) with its best perimeter defender in Josh Reaves out, but Michigan can't just rely on its three-point shot. The Wolverines had some serious cold spells against Rutgers and Minnesota in recent weeks, and both allowed Michigan many wide-open looks. Therefore, Michigan needs to make an effort to get the ball inside for easier looks, which means that U-M needs to get Penn State's best rim protector, Dickerson, out of the game. Dickerson has a tendency to be undisciplined and lunge after shots when he tries to swat them. If the Wolverines can capitalize with pump fakes and get him into foul trouble, the paint will be profitable.
Be Energized: No more going through the motions like against Minnesota and Rutgers.
It's difficult to make a prediction when Penn State has multiple players that seem to be game-time decisions. Either way, Penn State doesn't have the firepower to keep pace with Michigan's offense, even if the Wolverines sputtered a bit against Minnesota and Rutgers. The Nittany Lions aren't a good shooting team to begin with, and they might be without their only legitimate passer in Shep Garner. So they might have only one of their four top scorers and no one to get them into their offense. Oh, and the only strength that Penn State's offense has, getting to the free-throw line, should be cancelled out by Michigan's excellent ability not to hack. I just don't know where PSU's points come from.
Michigan 74, Penn State 58