Wednesday is Senior Day for the Penn State men’s basketball team. That has meant a larger crowd than the usual barren amount and a jovial atmosphere at Bryce Jordan Center. A slew of pregame senior festivities is typically the sole attraction for fans. By the time the final home game of the year rolls around, the Nittany Lions have seldom had much to compete for.
But this year is different, and everyone in State College knows it. The slogan ‘We’re climbin’ decorates the shirts the school will give away Wednesday. It’s an apt slogan.
After years of mediocrity, Penn State has been a surprise this year, positioning itself for a shot at the NCAA Tournament contingent on a strong finish. Last Thursday, the Nittany Lions completed a sweep of then-No. 8 Ohio State with a dominant 23-point victory before playing No. 9 Purdue to the wire on the road Sunday.
Penn State (9-7 conference, 19-10 overall) is quite dangerous and has everything to play for as it welcomes No. 17 Michigan (11-5, 22-7) on Wednesday. A win could push the Nittany Lions off the bubble for the first time since 2011.
“This Penn State team is making a great run right now and is really talented,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “They’re young, and they’re extremely talented.”
That youth and skill is perfectly embodied by the Nittany Lions’ sophomore class. With one of the purest outside strokes in college basketball, sophomore point guard Tony Carr leads the Big Ten, averaging nearly 20 points and ranks fifth in assists with around five per-game.
Manning the interior is one of the conference’s best interior defenders in Mike Watkins — a 6-foot-9, 254-pound forward good for nearly three blocks and 10 rebounds a contest. Small forward Lamar Stevens, meanwhile, adds a scoring threat to the frontcourt, averaging over 15 points a contest.
“Their sophomores are outstanding,” Beilein said. “They got a shot blocker inside. They can shoot it, they can pass it.”
That all contributes to a strong sense of trepidation for the Wolverines. Two weeks ago, they ran into another surging team on the road in Northwestern and lost after a disastrous second half. A similar story unraveled in Lincoln, where Nebraska dominated Michigan to a 20-point win in January.
Penn State could be an even taller task for the Wolverines.
“This is one that will be really difficult for us,” Beilein said. “This is a game where we’re absolutely going to have to play our best game of the year if we’re going to be in it at the end.”
Further complicating things for Michigan is the possibility that the Nittany Lions play zone defense — something they’ve flashed throughout the season. From Southern Mississippi in November to the Feb. 6 Northwestern loss, the Wolverines have struggled to adjust against the zone.
“That’s the challenge,” Beilein said. “We’re going to have to make foul shots, we’re going to have to limit their (second-chance) shots, and when 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.”
Michigan did many of these things well in Sunday’s victory over Ohio State. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who will be making his final regular season trip to his home state of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, led the Wolverines with 17 points, while understudy and freshman guard Jordan Poole added 15.
Michigan is playing its best basketball of the season as March approaches — but so are the Nittany Lions.
Penn State is indeed climbing, and Wednesday will be its biggest game in recent memory. A sold-out Bryce Jordan Center will undoubtedly let the Wolverines know it.
“They’ve done it before against big crowds,” Beilein said. “But we’re going to have to play at our best.”