The No. 13 Michigan basketball team’s regular season will end on Sunday afternoon right where its conference season started — in a tilt with the relatively deficient Nittany Lions.
But this time around, Big Ten regular season title implications abound, as the Wolverines will be fighting for a share of the regular-season championship. If Michigan (12-5 Big Ten, 22-8 overall) knocks off Penn State (4-13, 12-18) on the road, all eyes will turn to a 4 p.m. matchup between Ohio State and Michigan State in East Lansing.
Should the Spartans win that contest, they would take over sole possession of first place in the conference and win the outright regular-season title. If the Buckeyes win, then Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan would each earn a share of the title.
But for that to matter for the Wolverines, Michigan coach John Beilein and his crew have to first take care of Big Ten bottom-dwelling Penn State.
In their first meeting on Dec. 29, Michigan won handily at Crisler Center by an 18-point margin. Since then, Happy Valley hasn’t been too happy. In Pat Chambers’ first season at the helm, Penn State has won just four conference games and none on the road.
The Nittany Lions struggle mightily on the offensive end, and their shooting woes have been magnified by the loss of two starters — Cameron Woodyard and Billy Oliver — to injury. Both knocked down 3-pointers against Michigan the last time out, and their absence has put greater pressure on junior point guard Tim Frazier.
Frazier seems to be Penn State’s lone scoring weapon. He relies on his quickness to get himself open for shots, and he does it well. Chambers has noted that Frazier is easily the fastest guard he’s ever coached.
“He’s as fast as they get,” Beilein said. “He has a unique ability to get in the lane, float, tear drop, runner and shoot in in-between spaces over big guys. He’s one of the more, if not the, most improved players in the league. Last year we would help off of him on our scouting report to get to Talor Battle.
“It’s unique to see a kid make such a climb in one year.”
Against Michigan in December, Frazier registered 20 points, but he also inadvertently helped the Wolverines at times. His quick style of play sometimes led to sloppiness, and he turned the ball over five times.
And though Frazier will probably get his buckets on Sunday afternoon, it’s unlikely that Penn State will be able to turn things around against a Michigan squad that has been rolling as of late, both home and away. The Wolverines have won five of their last six contests, and three of those victories were on the road.
Moreover, sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. found his groove at Illinois on Thursday night, tallying a game-high 25 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including 4-for-4 from behind the arc.
“He just worked really hard on having a good foundation and balance before and after his shot,” Beilein said. “He was very inconsistent, even shooting in practice, so he really worked at having better balance all through. I thought (Thursday) night his shot selection was excellent. That also was a key point of why you can go six-for-seven. Seven shots and 25 points might be a new record.”
That is bad news for Penn State, as Hardaway Jr. terrorized the Nittany Lion defense the last time out, en route to a game-high 26 points. And with the conference title on the line, Michigan’s star will be hungry for more.