To say that John Beilein is familiar with Penn State men’s basketball coach Pat Chambers would be an understatement.
Back when Beilein was at West Virginia, Chambers was an assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova — then a Big East rival. Four years after Beilein arrived at Michigan, Chambers got the Nittany Lions job. And for Beilein, coaching his teams to a win over Chambers’ has never been easy. Though the Wolverines have won the two teams’ last three matchups, in each one, the margin of victory was less than 10 points.
This year, the familiarity goes even deeper. Last year, Chambers led Penn State to a win in the NIT. Beilein, too, knows that feeling — in 2007, Beilein’s final year there, the Mountaineers won the NIT. The next season, he watched them go all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, and though he no longer coached there, he knows the kind of motivation an NIT championship can bring a team.
“They got just enough guys back … that have been really good,” Beilein said. “This is a team that won the NIT championship. I feel if you win the NIT championship — cause I was fortunate to do it at West Virginia — I think you’re a Sweet Sixteen team in the NCAA. They played really well in the end. … So it’s really gonna be a tough challenge for us.”
So far, the Nittany Lions have played nothing like a Sweet Sixteen team, but Penn State is the kind of team that plays tough in every game. And dating back to their old days in the Big East, Chambers has run all kinds of creative defenses, from a stifling three-quarter court trap to zone to plain old man, that could give Michigan fits. Beilein knows that as well as anyone.
And despite their struggles to score, the Nittany Lions still have the 23rd-ranked defense in the country, according to KenPom — the second-best defense the Wolverines will have faced all season. For a Michigan team that couldn’t hit shots against the likes of Air Force and Binghamton, that defense will pose a test. Last year, Penn State guard Josh Reaves and forward Mike Watkins made the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. Both return this year. Reaves ranks 20th in the country in steals and the Nittany Lions thrive in transition. If the Wolverines are careless with the ball, Penn State will make them pay.
“They’re extremely scrappy and they love defense,” said sophomore guard Jordan Poole. “They’re one of the teams that loves to get up in you, loves to press the tempo. … So 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 gonna be exciting for us to see what we can bring.”
Poole is quick to say that Michigan is a “rhythm team” and, consequently, that its offensive doldrums through much of December were mostly due to the lack of rhythm that came with playing once a week, having days off for holidays and not keeping a regular routine. Big Ten play will get the Wolverines back on a regular schedule — two practices, followed by a game.
But if the Nittany Lions and their defense have any say, Michigan finding its groove won’t be that simple.
“I think their defense is really sticky,” Beilein said. “And it’s gonna give us great challenges. … This is gonna be one that we’re gonna have to work like crazy to get.”
Additional reporting by Rohan Kumar