After Illinois handed the Michigan basketball team its first home loss of the season on Saturday, the Wolverines need to right their ship to ensure that they have a bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament. Michigan (9-5 Big Ten, 16-11 overall) could also use a win to stop to its two-game losing streak.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, tonight’s matchup is against the worst team in the Big Ten, Penn State (1-13, 6-19). The Nittany Lions’ lone conference win came against Wisconsin at home Feb. 19, when they were able to shut down the Badgers’ Kirk Penney, who was a dismal 2-for-10 from 3-point range.
Senior point guard Brandon Watkins, who averages 14.5 points a game in the conference, leads the Lions.
“I think Watkins, after starting for the last two years he’s been playing solid for us,” Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. “He’s a young man who is a very good athlete with excellent quickness and good feet. We try to use that to our advantage on the court.”
After a bad loss at Northwestern, Penn State is guaranteed to finish last in the conference. But even though the team was out of the hunt for the regular season title almost a month ago, Dunn’s Lions are still concerned with the task at hand – finishing out the regular season.
“We obviously are faced with another challenge with Michigan and Indiana this week,” Dunn said.
Tonight the Wolverines will face a tired but determined Penn State team. The long road trips from State College have been hard on the Lions this season, and some of their players are a little worse for the wear.
One of those players is freshman DeForrest Riley. A versatile 6-foot-6 guard/forward, Riley has been limited in action over the last two games because of fatigue. Dunn said the travel is often harder on the younger players because their bodies are not as developed. If Riley does not start, Penn State, an offensively-limited team that scores just over 60 points a game, loses a scorer who averages more than eight points a contest.
“Our sole concentration right now is on the Wolverines, we’ve got to get some rest for a guy like Riley, but we’ll see how the next few days go,” Dunn said yesterday. “We’ll have to find someone else to put in the starting lineup.”
While Riley has suffered from fatigue recently, Michigan coach Tommy Amaker’s young freshmen are ready to go. With three freshman starters, including freshman point guard Daniel Horton, the Wolverines have relied heavily on their freshman all season. Almost every team in the Big Ten has its freshman star. From Indiana’s Bracey Wright to Illinois’ Dee Brown, young stars have been contributing around the league all season.
“I think that most teams have relied heavily on a lot of young players, there is no question about that,” Amaker said. “We’ve seen that and talked about that all year. I think (fatigue) depends on a particular player and the circumstances of the team and basically where your team is right now.”