Game 15: Penn State at Michigan Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: Penn State (9-6) at Michigan (10-4) penn20state1_thumb.gif
Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
When: 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Michigan will look to bounce back from its disappointing Big Ten opener as it welcomes Penn State to the Crisler Center tonight.

The Nittany Lions opened the year with a home loss to Albany, but scrapped their way to an 8-5 non-conference record. They lost their Big Ten opener in a high scoring affair to Northwestern at home, before going to Rutgers and winning an ugly 72 possession game at Rutgers that finished 60-47.

The Nittany Lions

Penn State under Pat Chambers has had a pretty distinct modus operandi. They are going to play hard, have a few guys that can get to the rim and be better on the defense than offense while playing at a grind-it-out tempo.

That recipe hasn’t been good enough to get the Nittany Lions into the tournament and this year we’ve seen one significant shift. Penn State plays uptempo basketball now. The Nittany Lions are averaging 74 possessions per game (28th nationally) after never averaging more than 67 possessions per game under Chambers. PSU’s average offensive possession length is just 14.8 seconds, just .6 seconds longer than the up-and-down UCLA Bruins that Michigan saw earlier this year.

Unlike the Bruins, Penn State isn’t very efficient despite the tempo. The Nittany Lions are ranked 240th or worse in eFG%, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate. The Nittany Lions make just 45.2% of their twos (286th) and 34.7% of their threes (173rd) for a 47.5 eFG% (263rd). Penn State is better in transition than half court, so the push for tempo makes sense, but they are still lacking the number of shooters required to have an efficient offense.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions grade out much better and allow just 96.2 points per 100 adjusted possessions (57th). Penn State is ranked in the top 100 in eFG% defense, turnover rate and free throw rate. The one weakness of the PSU defense has been defensive rebounding as teams have rebounded 30.3% of their misses (201st) against the Lions.

The Nittany Lions play predominantly man-to-man defense, but will experiment with some different looks. 16.4% of PSU’s defensive possessions are full court press and 13.5% are various zone looks, per Synergy. The zone defense has been very good this year, and does a good job of forcing turnovers — something that Michigan struggled with a bit at Iowa.


Penn State’s rotation is built around several key returning cogs from last year’s team and a recruiting pipeline to Roman Catholic in Philadelphia, which provided both of its key freshman contributors.

6-foot-2 junior Shep Garner is a familiar face to Big Ten fans. He’s leading the Nittany Lions with 13.2 points per game, but came off the bench in their last game. Garner is a high volume ball screen player, but his efficiency has dropped this year in the pick-and-roll game. He’s still shooting 44% on twos and 35% on threes for a 49.1 eFG%.

The Roman Catholic freshman duo of 6-foot-3 guard Tony Carr and 6-foot-7 wing Lamar Stevens has made the biggest impact on the PSU roster. (A third Roman Catholic freshman, Nazeer Bostick, has played sparingly this year).

Carr gives the Nittany Lions a second pick-and-roll guard, but he’s still learning to be efficient at the college level. He’s shooting 36% on twos and 37% on threes, but takes twice as many twos as threes. He’s also the leading setup man on the roster, allowing Garner to play more of a scoring role.

Stevens more of an undersized four man who shoots 48% from the field. He’s not a three-point threat, but he gets to the foul line more often than anyone else on the Nittany Lion roster.

Other than Garner, 6-foot-6 junior Payton Banks is the primary shooting threat to track. Banks is 42-of-102 (41%) from three-point range and he’s really the only reliable catch-and-shoot threat on the roster. He’s made 27 catch and shoot jumpers this season, while the rest of the team has only made 31.

6-foot-9 redshirt freshman Mike Watkins has stepped into the starting center role. Watkins ranks 10th nationally in lock percentage and is a plus-rebounder on both sides of the floor. He’s a good finisher (55%) and gets a few post-up opportunities per game and handles them well.

6-foot-4 sophomore Josh Reaves is known for his length and defensive abilities. He missed some early season time due to injury and is shooting 51% on twos an 25% on threes.

Three Keys

  • Where’s the defense?: Michigan’s defense was picked apart by Iowa over the weekend and left major question marks. The Nittany Lions have one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten, but they are also capable of attacking off of the bounce and giving Michigan problems. Throughout the week, Beilein has referred to things such as communication issues and other fundamental problems with the defense and that’s a very worrying sign in early league play.
  • Transition defense: Penn State grades out in the 21st percentile nationally in half court offense. That’s where Michigan wants to force Penn State to play, not in transition where they grade out in the 64th percentile. The key for the Wolverines to control the tempo — push when they want to push on offense and slow down the game on defense.
  • Get Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman going: Abdur-Rahkman was missing in action in Iowa City, playing only 8 minutes and failing to record a basket. He had a pair of great games against his in-state school last year, and this is a chance for him to try to rebuild some confidence after going through a rough patch. Michigan is going to need the 6-foot-3 slasher this year and

Bottom Line

This is obviously a big ‘right the ship’ game for the Wolverines. Opening the season with a loss at Iowa wasn’t how anyone in the Crisler Center wanted the season to start, but there’s still a lot of basketball to played and one Big Ten road loss isn’t going to derail the season.

A home loss to Penn State? That would be a bigger reason to start panicking. KenPom projects a 74-63 Wolverine victory, giving the Nittany Lions a 16% shot at the road upset.

  • malcolm bolt

    Must win game in so many ways. The fan base is supportive but growing restless with this program. A loss would create a horrible narrative of the program’s direction.

    • I think there are plenty of people who will create a horrible narrative after Zak Irvin misses his first shot.

      • Chillax

        I think losing would just be another continued narrative of the past couple of years. The team seems to be trending downward, but I think this all goes back to recruiting…time will tell I guess. I hope we start clicking on D soon. Seems like our offense is working again.

        • Champswest

          We are 10-4. Is that really trending downward?

          • Chillax

            i’d say from this year to last year the team feels flat (other than DJ). Obviously still to early to tell, but I feel like this game is going to be a big momentum pusher if we lose. I’m also looking to next season where we lose our better shooters and what are we gaining. I’m nervous all around.

          • Coltrane

            They didn’t look flat against Marquette, SMU, UCLA for most of the game and several other opponents. I think they are inconsistent. I blame this on the reliance on Walton and Irvin to be the man when they need a big shot or defensive play and neither can seem to consistently deliver. Wilson, Wagner and Robinson all defer to them. To me Michigan’s success this year will be in Walton and Irvin’s ability to leverage their experience to take advantage of Wilson and Wagner’s abilities.

      • malcolm bolt

        ZI has had a decent career, but his pendulum swings from game to game and awkward jump shot make him very polarizing. Had there not been NBA predecessors just before him, he probably doesn’t get criticized as often and fans would just accept his game for what it is.

        • robpollard

          Well, also part of his problem is he was a 5-star recruit, and he has maxed at out the high 3-star/low 4-star level in terms of production. The hope was he could become “the man” and he’s just not. He would be in a very good position if he was the 3rd or 4th option, but on this team, he’s often is the #1 (as Wagner, the best offensive player, can’t really create his own shot off the dribble).

          I’m not sure whose “fault” that is — Irvin, for not meeting what some thought was his potential? Beilein for not coaching him up? The coaches, for not constructing the roster better?

          I’ve come to appreciate his game, as he’s a homeless-man’s Paul Pierce, but unfortunately, he has too many “just not good enough” games like Iowa, where his 15 pts, 6 rebs and 6 assists need to be weighed against his 5-15 shooting, his 4 TOs ,and a couple key defensive lapses.

          I’ll keep rooting for him, and not just b/c there is no other option. He seems like a good guy and like I said, has some real positive aspects to his game.

          • ChathaM

            I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. Zak does not have the athleticism of most shooting guards at this level, and it limits what he can do. No matter how this season turns out, he has had a very good career, and has made the most of his ability. He is a leader on the floor, for better or worse, he always plays hard, and he has learned to compensate for his athletic weaknesses on the defensive end. I don’t see how anyone could have expected more than that, unless they overrated his talent from the beginning (which his HS ranking could certainly have caused people to do).

      • JimC_UM

        How about his 8th miss?

  • Please guys… not a macro discussion of the program here (there’s plenty of that in the forum or the last game recap comment thread). Let’s focus on the game at hand.

    I’m really curious to see how the defense plays in the next four games. All four teams have worse offenses than Iowa, but some real ugly cracks starting to appear defensively. Good chance to get back on track, or expose more weaknesses.

    • malcolm bolt

      I would like to see if an unsung hero can step up at this time. Lonergan is now starting to get burn these days.

    • JimC_UM

      The IA game was depressing. Victory needed NOW!

  • A2MIKE

    Penn State has always played Michigan tough. I don’t see this game being any different, probably a 1-2 possession game. Hope our guys make some plays!

    • Have they? Other than the 2013 disaster I feel like most of the games have been pretty much blow outs.

  • mikey_mac

    PSU seem like a good candidate for the start of UM’s defensive 3PT% regression …

  • bobohle

    Any updates on the recruitment of Mo Bamba?

  • ChipJonez

    Will the pressers (if there were any) start getting posted again now that the holidays are over? I actually enjoy listening to JBs remarks before/after games

    • Yeah, we weren’t able to get anyone to Iowa City, but we’ll be rocking and rolling again now.

  • Chezaroo

    No way we drop this game at home. Penn State’s half court offense is horrible. Perfect recipe for our D.