- Allison Farrand/Daily
By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 13, 2014
With each new Michigan men’s basketball season comes a familiar set of red-letter games, the type of games fans circle when schedules are announced. Ohio State. Michigan State. Indiana.
This year, a new team cracked that prestigious list of basketball blue bloods: Penn State.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this game,” said sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III.
Tuesday night serves the Wolverines (3-0 Big Ten, 11-4 overall) a chance to avenge their shocking loss at the hands of Penn State last year. Michigan, No. 4 in the nation at the time, squandered a late lead to give the Nittany Lions, previously 0-14 in the conference, their first Big Ten win. It was the Wolverines’s fourth loss in their previous seven games, and from the looks of it, was bound to send Michigan into a complete tailspin.
That’s why Robinson recalls that game in such an interesting light.
“I definitely remember that game,” he said. “We learned a lot as a team. I think that was a changing point for our season, but it was a tough one to swallow for us.”
Despite hordes of talented players, this year’s Wolverine squad isn’t in a position to overlook anyone. If a loss to mid-major Charlotte in Puerto Rico and a last-minute escape over Nebraska last Thursday weren’t enough to keep Michigan from falling victim to a trap game as it heads into the death-row portion of its schedule, facing Penn State (0-4, 9-8) couldn’t come at a better time.
Last year’s upset came just 10 days after the Wolverines escaped with a win over the Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor. Penn State coach Pat Chambers — whose relationship with Michigan coach John Beilein dates back to the early 1990s, when Chambers was playing at Philadelphia Textile, and Beilein was coaching at Le Moyne — has had a history of success coaching against Beilein’s teams, including during his stint as an assistant at Villanova.
Calling them a “very, very hungry Penn State team,” Beilein’s compliments were more than just coach speak. After a rough start to the Big Ten season that saw blowout losses to Michigan State and Illinois, the Nittany Lions showed promise in back-to-back three-point losses to Minnesota and Indiana.
Their backcourt, featuring upperclassmen DJ Newbill and preseason All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier, is “one of the better backcourts in the nation,” according to Beilein.
Newbill, at 17.3 points per game, and Frazier, at 16.6 points per game, are both top-10 scorers in the conference. The well-rounded Frazier, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, also averages 6.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, stats Beilein called “Trey Burke numbers.”
But the Wolverines can’t divert all of their attention to the Penn State backcourt. Forward Ross Travis, who averages 11.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, recorded double-doubles in each of his three games against Michigan last year, including the Wolverines’s blowout win that ended Penn State’s season in the Big Ten Tournament.
While Michigan’s talent has the potential to overwhelm the Nittany Lions, Beilein said he continually reinforces that no Big Ten game is ever a guaranteed win, which is why he’s confident that the Wolverines won’t overlook anything on Tuesday.
“I don’t know that we did that last year — we just did not execute,” Beilein said. “If they beat us, it won’t be because we looked past them.”
After Penn State, Michigan’s ensuing slate features games at No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 4 Michigan State sandwiching a home game against No. 14 Iowa, arguably the conference’s hottest team. And a shaky non-conference record coupled with the Big Ten’s unforgiving nature means Tuesday is as close as any mid-January game can be to a must win.
Robinson will look to continue a streak of strong offensive showings that are finally living up to the lofty expectations that accompanied him to Ann Arbor. The sophomore has scored at least 17 points in three of Michigan’s five games since sophomore forward Mitch McGary was lost for the season, and is shooting an efficient 58.5 percent from the field in that stretch, forming a solid 1-2 scoring punch with sophomore guard Nik Stauskas.
Robinson attributes much of his recent success to a conversation he had two weeks ago with his high-school coach, Dave Milausnic, who stressed that Robinson needs to have more fun on the court.
“He said, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re having much fun out there. Just try to smile more and see if that helps,’ ” Robinson said. “I’m just trying to have fun out there, and I think that’s when I play my best basketball.
“I have a lot of confidence going right now.”