After a rough fall, the new year started out as well as it possibly could for the Michigan Wolverines with a laughable blowout of Maryland that was never even remotely close. In some ways it was not too surprising to see the team bounce back from an ugly defeat and show up for a big conference game, but nothing can be taken for granted this season.
As fun as Sunday’s win was, it really means nothing if it is not followed by another good performance against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Wednesday. The visitors are off to a surprisingly solid start to the season, sitting around 40th in Kenpom/Torvik with a 2-1 Big Ten record featuring wins over Illinois and Iowa and a loss to Michigan State.
While the Nittany Lions are beating preseason projections and enter with a decent resume, this is another game Michigan needs to win. Penn State has often been a pesky matchup for the Wolverines, but the time for excuses is long gone. Back-to-back victories would be a great way to head into East Lansing this weekend.
Penn State Nittany Lions (11-3, 2-1) at Michigan Wolverines (8-5, 2-0)
Date & Time: Wednesday, Jan. 4, 7 p.m.
Location: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
Big Ten Standings: PSU t-4th, MICH t-2nd
Finding some balance
Probably was not too bold of a take, but I figured Maryland was the right opponent to wake up Hunter Dickinson, and he delivered in a monster way. With how most Big Ten rosters are constructed this season, he will have opportunities to take over like this on most nights. Expecting this level of performance for 18 more games is a little lofty, but Michigan used up most of its margin for error so Dickinson is going to need to keep leading the way.
Penn State has not had the easiest conference draw, but the defense has not looked unbeatable in the three games so far. For the most part, opponents are hitting shots at a normal rate, and inside the arc there have been plenty of opportunities. As the Wolverines did against Maryland, attacking the rim will be a must, as the long-range shooting remains unreliable basically across the board.
Dickinson’s monster game somewhat overshadows the fact that no other Wolverine really stood out. Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin had just six and five points, respectively, and while it was nice to not need them for a night, these two players must continue to drive the offense along with Dickinson.
Where else the production comes from is probably going to be unclear heading into each game. Given the Nittany Lions’ low turnover numbers but also low foul rate, it seems like Michigan should be able to work the ball around and find the right look. Each game is another chance for young Dug McDaniel to get more comfortable and get the ball where it needs to be.
Do not relent
Maryland’s 0.61 PPP looks to be Michigan’s best defensive effort in five years. Obviously, shooting numbers this bad are pretty unsustainable, but a lot of the activity — rebounding, communicating, switching — is something the Wolverines can repeat every single night, and really every single possession.
Penn State is bolstered by strong three-point shooting that has been great in Big Ten play (41.4 percent). The Wolverines have done a good job in this area as of late, but it has been a weakness in their losses. Myles Dread, Seth Lundy, and Bucknell transfer Andrew Funk all are hitting over 40 percent from behind the arc and Michigan absolutely cannot allow any of them to see open looks.
Two areas to watch on this end are turnovers (the Nittany Lions rarely turn it over, but Michigan rarely forces many) and offensive rebounds (Penn State ranks near the bottom of the nation, but the Wolverines have struggled in this area). Should the home team cause a little pressure and get a few takeaways, or the visitors unexpectedly generate some second chances, that could be what makes the difference on Wednesday night.