'I think we're No. 1': Brazdeikis, UM face 'scrappy' Penn State
Ann Arbor — It’s time for the real season to resume.
After munching on cupcakes over the past few weeks, the No. 2 Wolverines will enter the meat of their schedule and look to keep rolling with a program record within sight.
“We found a way to get through the nonconference schedule and get through it all, get a couple road wins, win a (early season tournament) championship,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Wednesday. “But now it all changes. Now we go into the familiarity of the Big Ten, the talent in the Big Ten, the coaches in the Big Ten. We really have challenges ahead of us.”
It begins Thursday night with a visit from Penn State. The Nittany Lions (7-6, 0-2) were one of five Big Ten teams to get off to a winless start during the two early conference games played in late November and early December, while the Wolverines (13-0, 2-0) were one of five squads to pick up a pair of victories.
And even though Michigan has dominated the series against Penn State, winning seven straight and 12 of the past 13 meetings, it hasn’t been easy. The Nittany Lions have a history of being a tough out, with eight of those 12 victories being decided by single digits.
According to Beilein, much of the difficulty has to do with Penn State always having guys who can get tough buckets in isolation and Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers' penchant to throw out different defensive looks, from zone to man to trap.
“They're extremely scrappy on defense. They're one of the teams that loves to get up in you, likes to push the tempo and they're extremely talented how they were last year,” sophomore guard Jordan Poole said. “Being able to play a team like this where they're a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end — individually and as a unit — it's definitely going to be exciting for us to see what we can bring.”
Penn State returns several pieces from last season’s team that won the NIT championship in senior guard Josh Reaves, redshirt junior forward Mike Watkins and junior forward Lamar Stevens.
Reaves leads the Big Ten in steals per game (2.6) and is a threat to come away with the ball anytime he touches it. He’s also evolved from a shutdown defender to a multi-dimensional threat as his offense has picked up over his career.
Stevens, on the other hand, has a knack for giving opponents problems on the offensive end. As “a man on the backboard and a man down in the post area” as Beilein puts it, Stevens ranks first in the Big Ten in minutes played (35.5 per game), fifth in scoring (18.8 points) and tied for eighth in rebounds (8.2).
The Nittany Lions also have received a lift from freshman guard Rasir Bolton, who averages 14.2 points per game and ranks in the top 10 in the conference in 3-point makes (2.4 per game, tied for eighth) and 3-point shooting percentage (43.7 percent, ninth).
"They're really tough. Their forwards are really good. They're an experienced team and they have good freshmen as well,” freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis said. “We just need to be prepared, take them as seriously as possible because we're the No. 2 team in the nation right now trying to become the No. 1 team. I feel like we're right there, so we’ve got to take them seriously. We can't let down on any team.”
Michigan will have the benefit of having three of its next four games at home as it looks to get back into a groove with a normal playing schedule and maintain its place atop the standings all while closing in on the program-best 16-0 start.
With seven Big Ten teams ranked in this week’s top 25 poll, Beilein noted the conference gauntlet will eventually reveal who the contenders and pretenders are.
But there’s also a belief that no matter what, the Big Ten will have to go through Ann Arbor this season.
“I feel like we were all ready for this,” Brazdeikis said. “Me and Charles (Matthews) talk about it all the time. We're just like, 'Man, I don't see us losing at all this year.' That's the kind of confidence we have and the kind of focus that we bring every single day.
“I feel like we deserve being in that top five and I feel like we deserve to be No. 1. I think we're the No. 1 team in the nation, so we just need to continue to work, continue to get better and continue to be humble.”
Penn State at Michigan
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: No. 2 Michigan 13-0, 2-0; Penn State 7-6, 0-2
Outlook: Junior forward Lamar Stevens leads Penn State in scoring (18.8 points) and rebounds (8.2) and has six games with at least 20 points…The Nittany Lions rank second in the Big Ten in steals with 8.4 per game…The Wolverines have won seven straight in the series and 14 of the last 15 meetings in Ann Arbor.