The 8-5 Michigan Wolverines are 2-0 in conference play to start the year, and their next big test comes tonight with a home game against Penn State.
Once a cellar-dweller in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions have improved a lot over the last few years. Penn State is 11-3 and are currently on a five-game winning streak, including a 15-point win over No. 17 Illinois and a victory over Iowa.
They are a veteran team, with five guys in their playing rotation (Jalen Pickett, Myles Dread, Andrew Funk, Seth Lundy and Camren Wynter) being at least a traditional senior. The Nittany Lions are well-coached and are led by a point guard in Pickett whose been one of the best guards in the Big Ten, averaging 16.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.
Penn State is a much smaller team than Michigan, and will likely try to go five-out at certain points in the game. In his media availability yesterday, assistant coach Saddi Washington spoke highly of the Nittany Lions while stressing the importance of not trying to beat Penn State at their own game.
“I think (head coach Micah Shrewsberry) does a great job trying to keep guys off balance through their play call, through their personnel on the floor,” Washington said. “At the end of the day, we have to be who we are, and just stick to our principles and habits. They can really stretch the floor with their shooting and with their speed, but they also have a really talented point guard in (Jalen) Pickett. He’s a jack of all trades — we just got to really fly around, play with good length, and make it challenging for them to execute in the half court, as well as in the full court.”
“At the end of the day, we got to be who we are, because they have to turn around and guard us too.”
Penn State (8.8 turnovers per game, the best mark in college basketball) and Michigan (9.6, second) both do a great job taking care of the ball. The Wolverines will need to make sure they play mistake-free basketball in this one.
“Valuing the ball is so important, the guys have done a good job understanding the why of what we’re trying to get accomplished on the offensive end, and where the ball should be, who should have it at the right time to give ourselves the best opportunity to score,” Washington said. “Our team does a good job staying focused on the details of our offense and, in terms of trying to get them to turn the ball over, we have to defend. If the steals come, great, if not we have to be there to contest shots.”
A big reason we might see a five-out from Penn State would be to get reigning Big Ten Player of the Week Hunter Dickinson out of the paint and out at the three-point line, where the Nittany Lions can use their speed and take advantage of a more wide-open paint.
Dickinson said on Tuesday he’s gotten more comfortable playing defense away from the paint since coming to Michigan.
“I definitely have gotten better with it, I take it more as a challenge now (than) when I was a freshman or in high school when teams would play five-out, like Penn State will probably do some of next game,” Dickinson said. “I know in this game, they’re going to try and work their offense around me and try to put me in spots where I can be exposed — it’s a new type of game for me, and a fun little challenge for me to guard on the perimeter.
“It’s been fun with all the different coverages we have, exploring all the options hedging, switching, drop coverage, all different types of stuff. We got a full arsenal of defensive coverages going into next game — like coach Saddi said, they have to guard us on the other end as well. That’ll be a good chess match and hopefully we’re able to win that battle.”
Dickinson also had of praise for PSU head coach Micah Shrewsberry, and had a fun little anecdote to tell about his improved three-point stroke:
“I’m a really big fan of coach Shrewsberry, I think he’s one of the best offensive minds in the country, I have nothing but great things to say about him, I’m a big fan of him,” Dickinson said. “Their scouting report has levels, there’s a Rondo closeout for someone who can’t shoot, and then another type of closeout, and a Curry closeout is like a shooter. I was kind of heartbroken to realize I wasn’t a Curry, I wasn’t a Rondo either so like it wasn’t disrespectful. During the Big Ten media day, I asked him ‘Coach, what’s it going to take for me when we play you to be a Curry closeout?’ I think it’s like you got to shoot 40% on two attempts, and I’m not there yet so I probably won’t be.”
This will be a tough test for Michigan. As Dickinson alluded to, a victory would not only keep them undefeated in conference play, it would also give this young team a confidence boost heading into a rivalry game against Michigan State this weekend.
“I think they got a really good, old team. They’re starting senior, senior, senior, grad senior, and then a freshman but then they bring in a grad senior off the bench as a sixth man,” Dickinson said. “So they’re a really experienced older team that’s going to really test our habits and our willingness to buy into a game plan and details, so I think it will be a good challenge. It’ll be a big test, cause if we win, we’re 3-0, we’re first in the Big Ten, we got a lot of momentum going into a big weekend for us.”