First-year Penn State coach Patrick Chambers will get his Big Ten baptism by fire on Wednesday night when his Nittany Lions travel to face No. 16 Michigan at 7:30 p.m. in Ann Arbor in the first game of their conference schedule.
The Wolverines are off to a hot 10-2 start and own wins against then-No. 8 Memphis and UCLA. Last time out on Dec. 22, they beat Bradley 77-66. Led by guard Tim Hardaway junior (15.4 points per game) and freshman sensation and former Penn State commit Trey Burke (13.0 points), Michigan boasts five players averaging at least 7.8 points per game. Their 49.0 percent field goal percentage for the season is ranked No. 17 nationally.
Needless to say, the Wolverines will be a tough assignment for a Penn State team that has dropped four of its last seven games. The Lions do have a bit of momentum entering, however, earning wins against Mount St. Mary's and Cornell to close out conference play, so it will be interesting to see if the players can stay on a roll, or come out flat on the road.
Below are some things to watch for in the game.
When Penn State has the ball...
-Penn State has one big advantage in this game, and that's rebounding. Averaging 37.5 rebounds per game, the Lions grab 3.6 more on average than the Wolverines. Penn State is ranked No. 82 in the country in rebounding compared to Michigan's No. 238 slot, so the Lions must do their best to exploit this mismatch at both ends of the court, but especially on offense where there might be some second-chance points available.
-Point guard Tim Frazier has done a nice job running the Penn State offense and distributing the ball to his teammates this season. He needs to avoid the temptation to take over and do too much as conference play begins. If he tries to carry to much of the burden, Penn State will be in big trouble, but if he sticks to his game of getting everyone involved, the Lions will give the Wolverines a fight.
-Senior guard Cammeron Woodyard has quietly finished with double figures in scoring in four of Penn State's last five games. If he can keep that going, it'll be a nice boost for the offense.
When Michigan has the ball...
-As mentioned above, Penn State has a big rebounding advantage on paper. The Lions have to make that translate to the court, because Michigan has the talent in other areas to make sure this game is over by halftime.
-Burke and Hardaway are going to get their points in this one. They'll be the best two players on the floor next to Frazier and the best Penn State can hope for is to slow them down. The real stress defensively needs to be on Evan Smotrycz and Zack Novak, 57.9 percent and 41.5 percent 3-point shooters, respectively. Both have tortured Penn State with deep balls in the past, and keeping hands in their face will be the difference between the Lions staying in the game, or the superior talent of Michigan running away with this thing.
-At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Jordan Morgan is a big dude. His 7.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game don't say he'll be a big threat in this one, but if he's given room, he'll present problems for Penn State. The Lions have to keep an eye on him.
It's hard to see Penn State having much of a chance in this one. Michigan is talented and experienced, a lethal combination against a team as young as Chambers' Lions. If Penn State hits the boards as hard as it has all season and manages to limit turnovers, then this will probably stay withing 10 points for most of the evening. The Wolverines have the depth of talent to just wear the Lions down, though.
Pick: Michigan, 70-61