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Michigan vs. Penn State Basketball Preview: Morale victories are not victories

Time is running out for Michigan to get back into the tournament picture.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

While the Michigan Wolverines (again) put up a commendable effort against a tough team on the road, the NCAA Tournament selection committee can only do so much with moral victories. At 5-5 in the Big Ten, the Wolverines probably need to go at least 6-4 down the stretch to sneak on to the right side of the bubble.

Glass half full, there are plenty of opportunities for Quad 1 wins, but the harsher reality is that there is not anywhere close to six clear wins. Only two remaining games come against teams currently outside the top 35 per Kenpom: a revenge game against Rutgers in Ann Arbor, and Tuesday’s trip to Happy Valley.

Penn State has been a traditional below-average Big Ten team, losing to the top of the conference, while also earning wins over Indiana and Iowa. The Nittany Lions are a game and a half behind Michigan in the standings, but this one will not come easily, especially on the road. Unfortunately, this is still one of the best chances the Wolverines have left for a win, so the inconsistent visitors will need to find a way to come home victorious.

Michigan Wolverines (11-9, 5-5) vs. Penn State Nittany Lions (9-10, 4-7)

Date & Time: Tuesday, Feb. 8, 9:00 p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: ESPN2
Location: Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, PA
Big Ten Standings: MICH 8th, PSU 10th
DraftKings Sportsbook Odds: MICH -2.5, O/U 129

Hunter Dickinson is elite and he nearly helped Michigan pull off the upset over Purdue on Saturday. His jumper has made him nearly unguardable, even with a 7-foot-4 center on the other side. Thankfully, that is not something Penn State can unleash, and while the defense has been decent inside the arc, Dickinson should have another good game on Tuesday, which is the Wolverines’ only hope going forward this year.

The rest of the offense is still hit-or-miss, but the other starters have all shown enough flashes this season to know that on any given night at least someone can step up. The challenge has been the cold spells, such as against Northwestern and Nebraska recently, but look for DeVante’ Jones to continue assuming the leadership role as the senior point guard.

Michigan’s real issue is on the defense end, where it does not seem like any improvement is on its way. The defense has slipped down to 109th nationally per Kenpom, which is a far drop from preseason expectations. The numbers are completely justified, though, as this team allows too many open looks while not recording any steals or blocks, leading to plenty of efficient games from all sorts of opponents.

Thankfully, the Nittany Lions have one of the conference’s worst offenses, ranking 14th in eFG rate and not offering any crazy individual weapons. Sam Sessoms leads the team in usage and three-point shooting, but considering the parade of Big Ten guards Michigan will see in February, he and Jalen Pickett are fairly mild foes, all things considered.

Matchup Highlights

Caleb Houstan made a couple threes against Purdue after a combined 1-for-6 effort against Michigan State and Nebraska, and it seems like at this point Michigan needs him to just keep shooting. The freshman is at 39.2 percent from deep in conference play, and this threat really helps the team’s spacing, allowing the bigs to operate in the paint and the guards to slash to the hoop. Houstan continues to be the biggest x-factor in terms of volatility, but even when he is cold, the team still needs him to draw some defensive attention.

Penn State owns one of the slowest tempos in the nation, meaning the defense will need to stay engaged and focused. As mentioned above, this is not an intimidating attack, but the Nittany Lions have put up decent free throw and offensive rebound rates, so collapsing at the end of the shot clock is one thing the defense absolutely cannot do. A smart defensive game accompanied by good effort is exactly what Michigan needs to earn the road victory.