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Penn State at Michigan Preview: Disciplined Defense Vital for Lions' Chances

C'mon, you know the first two hours of the bowl game are going to be excruciating.

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
Who: Michigan Wolverines (11-3, 1-0)
When: Saturday, Noon E.T.
Where: Crisler Center
TV: Big Ten Network
KenPom Rank: 31
Vegas Line: Michigan -11
Enemy Blogs: Maize n' BrewUM Hoops

The second of two daunting road trips to start the Big Ten season, Penn State's matchup against Michigan on Saturday provides Pat Chambers with another opportunity to make a team with tournament hopes sweat. The Nittany Lions gave Maryland all it could handle at the Xfinity Center on Wednesday, but large Terp Diamond Stone and his 39 points saved the day for the nation's fourth-ranked team.

The Wolverines will present a similar challenge to a Penn State team that held a usually accurate Maryland to just 5-21 shooting from three-point range. The Nittany Lions are going to need more of that magic if they're going to hang around in Ann Arbor.

Scouting The Opposition

Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr are the familiar faces for this iteration of John Beilein's Wolverines. LeVert has rebounded very well from an injury-halted 2014-15 campaign, as he leads the team in points (17.6 per game), boards (5.4) and assists (5.2). A virtual lock for all-B1G first team honors, LeVert is the catalyst for a team that has a ton of weapons. Walton, who himself averages four assists per game as the natural point guard, has had no problems filling the spot-up shooter's role either. He's currently 13th nationally in 3pt shooting percentage at 54%.

The really scary thing is that Walton isn't even the best shooter on his team, and it's hardly even a close second. Williams College (that's a dang D-III school) transfer Duncan Robinson is currently shooting 59% from three on 83 attempts, which is a staggering 46 more attempts than Walton. Beilein's latest magical procurement (RIP Spike) leads the nation in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage - figures that take the added value of three-pointers into account - both of which hover around 81 god damn percent. The kicker? He's 6'8", and impossibly difficult to run off the arc when LeVert and Walton are penetrating.

If that's not enough for Penn State to worry about, Michigan's supposedly weak frontcourt just got a huge game from maligned center Mark Donnal against Illinois, which UM won 78-68 in Champaign. Donnal's 26 and nine sparked a commanding second half against the Illini, though it should be said that John Groce's frontcourt has plenty of problems of its own.

What To Watch For

As always with a good Beilein team, Michigan is extremely well-disciplined on offense. They simply do not turn the ball over, coughing up the rock on just 14.5% of their possessions. The good news here for Penn State is that they batten down the hatches very well and haven't needed to force many turnovers to be successful on defense. Maryland, for example, was held well under their season numbers on offense but only turned it over nine times in a 64-possession game.

The major key for Penn State will be to defend the arc and keep fouling to a minimum. Granted, these have been two areas of struggle for the Lions of late, but Michigan should naturally help Penn State with the latter point. The Wolverines don't get to the line very often - they're just 338th nationally in free throw rate - as they usually prefer to find an open shooter late in the clock. If Penn State can stay focused on those long defensive sets and keep players like Donnal from having an impact, they might be able to stay with the clearly superior team longer than many expect.


There's a lot to like about Michigan, particularly on offense. Beilein's system has proven to work against Penn State plenty of times before, and with a noon tip at the Crisler Center this has some "letdown" potential if we're considering the Maryland game to be a success (of course it was). I was very impressed by Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor on Wednesday, and if they continue to play aggressively, especially against man-to-man sets, I could see the Nittany Lions making a game of this. But as we saw on Wednesday in College Park, talent usually wins out at home. Michigan 75, Penn State 68.