Playing at home is about the only thing that has treated the Michigan Wolverines nicely since Isaiah Livers went down last month with a groin injury. Even home contests, however, have been grind-it-out games, specifically thinking about the double overtime game versus Purdue. Livers was able to go through warm-ups against Iowa but isn’t all the way back yet. Wednesday night’s game against Penn State could be the much anticipated and needed return of the junior forward.
We most recently saw Luka Garza gash the interior defense of the Wolverines, again. In two contests against Michigan, Garza has a ridiculous 77 points. The Iowa big man is highly skilled, no doubt, as displayed by his ability to score from inside and outside. On the other hand though, this continues to be an ailing weakness of this Michigan team and defense.
Michigan is unranked for the first time in awhile. After their run over Thanksgiving in Atlantis propelled them up the ranks, they’ve slowly dropped and now sit outside the top 25. Penn State was briefly ranked, but as you know, winning on the road in this conference makes stringing together wins very difficult.
What to Watch:
Stop one big man: Penn State’s frontcourt is a bit of a puzzle currently. Senior forward Mike Watkins has started at the center position all season up until two games ago. Why head coach Pat Chambers decided to move him to the bench is unclear. He is averaging 10.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks this season, outputs good enough to usually maintain a starting role. Instead, John Harrar has received the last two starts. The junior is mostly a non-factor, especially offensively, and doesn’t possess nearly the same shot-blocking ability as Watkins. One thing to highlight as the Wolverines game plan for this duo is that neither one of them will step outside and shoot the rock like previous opposing big men that Michigan has faced. Penn State doesn’t play through their centers and maybe this is the game where Michigan doesn’t get absolutely gauged inside.
Lamar Stevens wants to attack: If you’re reading this and thinking, “I swear Watkins and Stevens have played more than four years,” you are not alone. It sure does feel that way, especially since Lamar Stevens has started every game for the Nittany Lions since his freshman year in 2016. He has also averaged double digits every year since he stepped foot on campus. The heart and soul of this Penn State team, Stevens, who is 6-foot-8, handles the ball much like a guard. His goal is to penetrate the middle of opposing defenses by attacking from his wing position. He finishes exceptionally well around the rim but also has underrated vision, allowing him to kick to his teammates for outside open looks. If Livers plays, that would be the ideal matchup for the Wolverines, given the similar body types between the two athletes. If he doesn’t, then Brandon Johns Jr. and Franz Wagner would do most of the defending on Stevens. If there’s anyone that Michigan needs to prioritize defending, this is the guy.
Matching Up: Last game against Iowa, foul trouble, matchup problems, and the absence of Isaiah Livers forced coach Juwan Howard to use some two-center lineups. This consisted of two of the three guys playing on the floor together: Colin Castleton, Austin Davis, and Jon Teske. The end result wasn’t great. Once Livers returns, this won’t be an issue. Iowa also has more size than Penn State, meaning this problem shouldn’t arise. The tallest guy that Penn State is going to play is 6-foot-9. They start three guards and their top scorer off the bench is also a guard. We’ve seen Michigan at times this year play Simpson, Brooks, and DeJulius together. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some of that lineup on Wednesday, just because they might match up better and create more transition opportunities. It’s also very possible that even if Livers does return, he isn’t going to go out there and play 30+ minutes. Franz Wagner matches up fine with Lamar Stevens at the power forward spot. Teske, Davis, and Castleton will all hold height advantages at the five.
Michigan forces Penn State to shoot more three-pointers than they would like. Franz Wagner continues to play with extreme confidence and hits a few huge shots in this one. The Wolverines win, with or without Isaiah Livers. Michigan 78-73.
Teams: Penn State Nittany Lions (13-5, 3-4) at Michigan Wolverines (11-6, 2-4)
Date: Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST
Television/Streaming: Big Ten Network/BTN+