Michigan coach John Beilein talks about his team's upcoming road game against the Nittany Lions on Wednesday, and the challenge they present. James Hawkins, Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Don’t look now, but the Nittany Lions are starting to roar.
Over the past month, Penn State has arguably been playing as well as any team in the Big Ten, and continues to claw its way up the conference standings and into the NCAA Tournament picture.
It’ll be up to Michigan to try and turn it into a whimper Wednesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center as both teams enter a hectic final week that’s full of postseason implications.
“This team is making a great run right now and is really talented,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Tuesday. “They’re young but extremely talented. Their sophomores are outstanding. Shep Garner is a senior now and is so good. They got a shot blocker inside. They can shoot it. They can pass it.
“This is one that’s going to be really difficult for us.”
Penn State has won six of its last eight games heading into its home finale, highlighted by a pair of impressive victories over Ohio State, a 24-point beatdown of Iowa and 22-point lashing of Illinois on the road.
The Nittany Lions’ two losses during the recent stretch came to ranked teams on the road — a 76-68 loss at then-No. 5 Michigan State and 76-73 loss at then-No. 6 Purdue. Penn State led by as much as 12 points in the second half against Michigan State and led by four at halftime against Purdue.
Beilein said the biggest difference for Penn State during its second-half surge has been its active defense, which leads the Big Ten in steals per game (7.6).
“I think (junior guard) Josh Reaves brings this temperament that I got (Ohio State star) Keita Bates-Diop and I’m going to shut him out and you all got to do the same thing,” Beilein said. “They’ve been able to really ramp up their defense and cause some turnovers. It’s one thing causing a turnover and then there’s getting a steal. A steal usually means a fast break. I think it’s really been helping them.”
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have a pair of talented sophomores like Mike Watkins and Tony Carr.
Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward, is a physical force in the paint, ranks third in the nation in field-goal percentage (69.2 percent) and is nearly averaging a double-double (12.5 points, 9.2 rebounds).
Meanwhile, Carr leads the Big Ten in scoring (19.6 points) and seems to be at his best against ranked foes. He scored 30 and 28 points in the two wins over Ohio State, and 28 and 19 points in the losses at Michigan State and Purdue.
But according to Beilein, Reaves is the key because he can do it all — shoot, defend, distribute and bring energy.
“This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to play absolutely our best game of the year if we’re going to beat them at the end,” Beilein said. “We can, but we’re going to have to do that. We’re going to have to make foul shots. We’re going to have to limit their second shots. If we’re open from 3, we’re going to have to knock it down because you won’t have much of a margin of error in this game.”
DOUBLE-BYE IN PLAY
Entering play Tuesday, Michigan’s bid for the No. 4 seed and double-bye in the conference tournament was still alive.
Michigan and Nebraska were both tied with an 11-5 mark in Big Ten play with two games to go, but the Cornhuskers hold the tiebreaker with a win the teams’ lone regular-season meeting.
In order for the Wolverines to leapfrog into the No. 4 spot, they’ll need to surpass Nebraska in total wins. The result of Nebraska’s game Tuesday night against Indiana will provide more clarity whether Michigan will need to win out to even have a chance to move up.
However, Michigan also hasn’t locked up the No. 5 seed and it’s possible it can slip to No. 6. If the Wolverines lose their final two games and the Nittany Lions win out, they would both finish with an 11-7 conference record, with Penn State holding the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Regardless, Beilein said he can’t recall an instance when one of his teams received a double-bye and would rather just play right away in the tournament.
“I think we were a tiebreaker away from finishing fourth or fifth last year and we finished eighth,” he said. “We did all right anyhow.”
MICHIGAN AT PENN STATE
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Bryce Jordan Center, University Park, Pa.
Records: No. 17 Michigan 22-7, 11-5 Big Ten; Penn State 19-10, 9-7
Outlook: Michigan has won 11 of the past 12 meetings in the series, including the last six, and is playing at Penn State for the first time since Jan. 6, 2015. … Sophomore G Tony Carr leads the Big Ten in scoring at 19.6 points per game for the Nittany Lions, who has won four of five.