Ann Arbor — Nearly a third of the way through the Big Ten slate, Michigan finds itself toward the bottom of the jumbled standings.
The Wolverines are one of four teams who have fewer than three wins in conference play and are sitting alone in 11th place with a 2-4 mark heading into Tuesday’s games.
But after playing four of its first six Big Ten contests on the road, Michigan (11-6) enters a critical stretch where four of its next six games will be at Crisler Center, starting with Wednesday’s contest against Penn State.
"I think this will be a big chance for us to make up a lot of ground,” sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. said Tuesday. “Obviously, we lost the last two (at Minnesota and at Iowa) and we're trying to make up for it, trying to bounce back. This will be big for us.”
It’s a prime opportunity for the Wolverines to start building some momentum and regain some confidence. Since starting the season 7-0, Michigan has hit a rough patch by losing six of its past eight matchups against high-major competition and all five of its true road games.
Despite the struggles that have led to the Wolverines falling out of the rankings, coach Juwan Howard said the team’s morale has remained “very positive” through the ups and downs.
“Every day our guys come in the gym, they walk in solution-based and ready to get better,” Howard said. “They’re not with their heads down sulking, asking people to feel sorry for them. We're not wired that way. We're wired to (see) what can we do to get better as a group starting with me first and going down to the players.”
One area where Michigan has plenty of room to improve is on defense. During Big Ten play, the Wolverines are giving up the most points (82) and are allowing opponents to shoot a league-worst 48.2 percent from the field.
Howard said the team can get better in several different areas — from pick-and-roll to the interior — but it simply boils down to execution and everyone doing a better job guarding their man "mano-a-mano."
While senior center Jon Teske added he’s “very confident” the team can make strides defensively, he’s also encouraged that the Wolverines will learn from their mistakes in their recent losses, whether it’s getting key stops or executing better in the final minutes.
And given Michigan had its chances late to pull out victories at Minnesota and Iowa, Teske feels the team is close to breaking through and has the potential to start stringing wins together.
“There are some things during the games we could change and get us over the hump, but I definitely think we're right there,” Teske said. “One or two plays, one or two things down the stretch, just those little things where winning matters. We can change that and I know we can and the guys know they can, too. We just have to put it all together for a full game.”
There have been other welcomed signs, as well. Junior guard Eli Brooks shook off a three-game slump where he shot 1-for-14 from 3-point range with five made 3s and a career-high 25 points against Iowa.
Freshman wing Franz Wagner appears to have found his groove, stringing together four consecutive games where he has scored at least 10 points and made at least two 3-pointers.
Junior forward Isaiah Livers, the team’s second-leading scorer, continues to inch close and closer to returning to the lineup after suffering a left groin injury on Dec. 21.
And, of course, there’s the upcoming six-game slate where Michigan will have an opportunity to climb up the standings and right the ship in a league where Big Ten teams are 41-7 at home against conference foes.
After Penn State, the Wolverines will host No. 21 Illinois on Saturday and look to avenge last month's 71-62 loss in Champaign before traveling to Nebraska on Jan. 28 to take on a Cornhuskers team that is 5-5 at home.
Michigan will then face Rutgers in a neutral-site contest on Feb. 1 at Madison Square Garden, a venue where the Wolverines have had plenty of success in recent years, before returning to Crisler Center to host Ohio State on Feb. 4 and Michigan State on Feb. 8.
“It's huge,” Teske said of the upcoming schedule. “We can get on a winning streak. We can still win the Big Ten. We're capable of doing that and we know we can.
“We stuck together through the highs and lows. We know what we're capable of. We know the high level we can play at. We just have to get back to that.”
Penn State at Michigan
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
Records: Penn State 13-5, 3-4 Big Ten; Michigan 11-6, 2-4
Outlook: Michigan has won eight of nine in the series between the teams and seven straight meetings at Crisler Center…For Penn State, Lamar Stevens leads four players averaging double figures in scoring with 16.6 points. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in steals (8.6) and blocks (3.1) per game, and are 0-3 on the road in conference play.