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Defense leads the way in Michigan’s win over Penn State

The Wolverines continue to look excellent on at least one end of the floor.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play resumed in Ann Arbor as No. 2 Michigan took down Penn State Thursday night.

Following the theme of the past month-plus, the Wolverines held a modest lead for most of the night before running away with it at the end. Why this keeps happening is unclear; it could be a grind-them-down strategy or a lack of initial energy, or it could be some simple regression over the course of the game.

Whatever the case may be, the Maize and Blue earned its 14th straight win of the year to stay unbeaten. Penn State is not the toughest competition, but the Nittany Lions are a top-50 team per Kenpom, so a double-digit win is not too shabby.

Righting the ship

Michigan’s adjusted defensive rating had slipped a little in December, but has since risen back to second in the country. For the third game in a row, the Wolverines held their opponent to under 0.82 points per possession, and the Nittany Lions’ 0.77 mark was the best allowed by the defense in 10 games.

Penn State does not have a great offense — entering Thursday it ranked 118th — and its effective field goal rate (eFG) of 48.2 percent sat 248th overall. Michigan somehow forced an even lower mark, as the visitors ended with a 43.0 percent eFG and a 25.1 percent turnover rate, both much worse than their season averages. The game was won on this end of the floor.

Stepping forward

There were plenty of questions about who would provide scoring entering the season, but they quickly have disappeared. Jordan Poole is clearly the real deal in his sophomore campaign and Ignas Brazdeikis is looking like one of the best freshman to ever play under head coach John Beilein. Poole had 17 points and Brazdeikis had 16 to lead the team against Penn State.

However, it could be argued that this team’s success hinges on Charles Matthews. From an athleticism standpoint, few can compete with the former transfer. Matthews has been up and down his whole career, but his effort this season has been mostly positive. After a horrendous display against Binghamton, he looked like his normal self on Thursday, posting 14 points with a 59 percent eFG.

Matthews will not be The Guy every night, but he does not have to be. His ability to both drive and pull up and shoot is extremely vital to this team, given the skill sets of Poole and Brazdeikis. Matthews still leads the team with a 25.8 percent usage rate, speaking to his importance in the offense. While he does not need to lead the team in scoring, he does need to be active as he was against the Nittany Lions.

Unleash the firepower

For the first time since Holy Cross, Michigan failed to top 1.00 points per possession. The shooting was slightly below average and turnover were a problem early, but neither stat really stands out as the culprit. 5-for-14 shooting from deep is probably the biggest red mark, but even that rate is not too dissimilar from other games this season. Going up against a top-25 defense is part of the reason, but this is not the first weak offensive output.

It seems like Michigan has some sort of allergy to stomping on lesser competition early in games. It was not a problem against North Carolina or Villanova, but almost every recent contest has seen the same trend. The diagnosis likely requires more than a couple paragraphs, but shot selection and ball movement in the half-court offense stick out.

The one potential weakness for the Wolverines is depth. As mentioned above, Michigan has a very solid trio of scorers and facilitators who have led the team thus far. After them, though, options are few. Isaiah Livers's injury was a reminder as to how shallow this team has been. There are a lot of games left to go; at least one more player from the bench is going to need to step forward.