After four non-conference games in which Michigan barely broke a sweat (and one weird overtime game against KenPom No. 294 Oakland), the Wolverines enter conference play unbeaten and on the cusp of the AP Top 25, 15 votes shy of Louisville. But the real test begins now.
Penn State isn’t one of the favorites in a Big Ten that has appeared stacked from top to bottom. The Nittany Lions project very much as a bubble team, if that, when March rolls around.
Still, Big Ten basketball is here. And Penn State, which comes to Crisler Center Sunday afternoon, is the toughest opponent Michigan will have seen so far.
2019-20 ended cruelly for the Nittany Lions, who were well on their way to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011 before COVID-19 hit and ended the careers of seniors Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Stevens was one of the Big Ten’s top players (16.3 ppg for his career), a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward who played bigger than his size and could score in a multitude of ways. Watkins, who averaged 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game for his career, was Penn State’s anchor inside.
This season was already going to be the start of a new era in State College, even before head coach Pat Chambers stepped down on the eve of his 10th season. The reason: an investigation of Chambers, triggered by comments made by former player Rasir Bolton. Bolton, who’s now at Iowa State, alleged Chambers referenced a “noose” around his neck during a meeting. (Michigan fans may remember a January 2019 game in Ann Arbor in which Chambers shoved then-freshman Myles Dread during a timeout, which led to a one-game suspension).
Interim coach Jim Ferry has the Nittany Lions off to a solid start. They beat VCU in a close game and fell to Seton Hall in overtime, and most recently, went on the road and dominated a Virginia Tech team that beat Villanova two weeks ago. Penn State is young, but its offense (No. 25 in KenPom) is more balanced — and might be better — than last year’s, while its defense (No. 63) could have a bit of work to do.
The Lions haven’t replaced Stevens with only one player. Instead, four players are averaging at least 12 points and 10 shot attempts per game. Seth Lundy, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward, is the leading scorer so far. He’s taken a massive leap this season, going from 5.3 points to 16.8 on an efficient shooting line of 55/41/86. Redshirt junior guard Izaiah Brockington has improved as well, nearly doubling his scoring average to 14.0 this season. Lundy and Brockington are both versatile scoring threats, but how they hold up as go-to options in the Big Ten is still a question.
Penn State’s backcourt has a solid mix of youth and experience. Myreon Jones, last year’s second-leading scorer, is back. His efficiency has cratered through four games (44.8 TS%), but sample size suggests that it’s little more than a slow start. Either way, Dread (40 percent from deep on 6.3 attempts) and Binghamton transfer Sam Sessoms (12.3 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.8 spg) have picked up the slack. (Jones is also a playmaker and solid defender in his own right, averaging 3.3 assists and 2 steals per contest).
Senior point guard Jamari Wheeler, long one of the best defenders in the Big Ten (1.5 steals per game for his career), has boosted his scoring from 3.8 to 7.3 ppg and knocked down six of his 13 treys, while managing a sterling assist-turnover ratio of 6.3-1. Other players may get the glory scoring, but Wheeler, who leads the team averaging 32 minutes per contest, is Penn State’s glue.
Down low, John Harrar is a traditional down-low big whose offensive game isn’t the most versatile, but he does average 7.8 rebounds per game. He’s backed up by another senior, Trent Buttrick, who has a bit more range than Harrar.
Penn State has gone with a starting five of Wheeler, Jones, Brockington, Lundy and Harrar for the first four games, with Sessoms, Dread and Buttrick coming off the bench.
That’s a pretty darn good rotation, but the Nittany Lions haven’t shown any depth beyond that, which will likely hurt them as the season continues. For right now, though? They’ve certainly got enough firepower to go blow-for-blow with the Wolverines. They take plenty of threes (and knock them down), rebound decently well and don’t turn the ball over all that much.
Michigan’s advantage might come inside against an undersized Nittany Lion team (they don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-9 in their rotation). If the Wolverines can establish a post presence like they have during their first five games, it could pay off in a big way, as Penn State is quite foul-prone (252nd in the country in opposing free-throw rate). And freshman center Hunter Dickinson, of course, impresses more and more with every game.
All in all, Michigan is the deeper, and bigger, team, which should be enough to propel it to a win. But expect this game to be close all the way through. It’s a Big Ten opener with definite barn-burner potential if things break right.