Still sans LeVert, Wolverines head to New York to play Penn State

Friday, January 29, 2016 - 2:37pm

The Big Ten has made no secret in recent years of its efforts to expand its footprint eastward. Saturday’s men’s basketball-hockey doubleheader between Michigan and Penn State at Madison Square Garden is just the latest step.

The event, billed as “B1G Super Saturday,” is just Michigan’s second neutral-site Big Ten matchup ever. The first was in 1967, when the Wolverines fell to Wisconsin, 80-79, at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Neutral-site matchups are atypical for the middle of the Big Ten season, but Michigan players think playing at a venue with as much history as the Garden will ensure they don’t come out flat, as they have in recent games against Big Ten bottom-dwellers Minnesota and Rutgers.

“If you can’t get up for a game like that, then there’s something wrong with you,” said redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson.

The trip to New York City is the closest the Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) will come to Robinson’s hometown of New Castle, N.H.

“I’ve got a lot of family and friends coming,” Robinson said, adding that he expects the experience — his first trip to the Garden, despite its relative proximity — to be surreal.

The program as a whole, though, is no stranger to The World’s Most Famous Arena. The Wolverines are 17-11 all-time at the venue, having most recently won games against Pittsburgh and Kansas State during the NIT Preseason Tipoff in November 2012.

This trip, however, is unique. The basketball game tips off at noon, and after the arena’s staff swaps out the basketball court for a hockey rink, the Michigan and Penn State hockey teams will square off in another Big Ten regular-season matchup at 7 p.m. The basketball Wolverines will take a break for a meal and some sightseeing before returning to the arena to cheer on the hockey team, and following the second game, the teams will fly back to Ann Arbor together.

Michigan coach John Beilein said Friday that he appreciates the importance of expanding the conference’s reach, but pointed out that his team isn’t the one sacrificing a home game for the event. The Nittany Lions (2-6, 11-10) visited Ann Arbor on Jan. 2 and suffered a 79-56 beatdown, and the New York trip comes in lieu of a matchup in State College.

“The Big Ten is in the East to stay, as Jim Delaney continues to stress,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We would put a stake in the East and say, ‘We’re in here, we’ve got some teams over here, and this is gonna be important that we see ourselves in this environment.’ ”

Few of the weekend’s thrills, however, are likely to come from the game itself — a matchup of teams headed in opposite directions. Michigan has won four of its last five games and has considerable momentum leading into the trip, while the Nittany Lions have dropped four of five, with three of the losses coming by margins of 20 or more points.

Unlike in each of its four losses this season, Michigan will not be undersized, as Penn State’s starting lineup averages a relatively modest 6-foot-5. Worse for the Nittany Lions is that starting point guard Shep Garner is likely out due to injury, making hopes of avenging the blowout earlier this month slim.

Senior guard Caris LeVert is likely to miss his eighth consecutive game with an undisclosed injury to his lower left leg, which Beilein has been steadfast in his refusal to discuss.

“He was doing more than he was doing the day before,” Beilein said of LeVert’s participation in Thursday’s practice, unwavering in his response when pressed by a reporter for more information. “He was doing more than he was the day before.”