Penn State may be the 12-seed heading into the Big Ten Tournament’s open round, but that doesn’t mean the team is a long shot to beat the 5-seed, Michigan.
After all, the Nittany Lions have already shocked the Wolverines once this season.
Losing their first meeting in Ann Arbor, Mich., back on Feb. 17, Penn State shocked the Big Ten just 10 days later with perhaps the biggest upset of the conference season, beating No. 4 Michigan at home 84-78 and sending reverberating shock waves through the college hoops world.
“They work as hard as any team in the conference,” freshman forward Sam Dekker said. “They cause some problems, especially on the defensive end. Obviously, they’ve only won two conference games, but they beat a good Michigan team and they almost beat us. They’re not an easy team to take down.”
That’s why Wisconsin (21-10, 12-6 Big Ten) wouldn’t be shocked if Penn State (10-20, 2-16 Big Ten) shocked Michigan again, this time on a neutral court when the two face off Thursday afternoon on the hardwood of Chicago’s United Center.
“Michigan is a jump-shooting team. They rely on jump shooting from Hardaway and Burke,” senior guard Dan Fahey said. “A big part of our game was getting [Jared] Berggren going early, while Michigan has NBA guys who hit mid-range shots, but if they’re not hitting it’s tough for them.
“In this conference you expect the unexpected.”
That’s the main reason the Badgers were able to survive their meeting with the Lions this past Sunday, relying on the double-double of redshirt senior center Berggren to pace them during their 63-60 win over the Lions.
And they didn’t make things any easier when they played the Badgers during the first meeting between the two at the Kohl Center. This year both meetings between the two teams were decided by an average of six points.
Both games were wins for Wisconsin, even though the Badgers probably didn’t deserve to win the last. If not for a Traevon Jackson buzzer-beating heave from deep, UW could have potentially lost its third straight game last Sunday.
“It felt good, mainly it was great to get the win,” sophomore guard Jackson said. “We grinded it out and got the finish we wanted. Any one of our guys on our team could have hit that shot because we all have that confidence, we all know that.”
Even though the Lions record in Big Ten play is the worst in the conference, and the scores may hide it, head coach Patrick Chambers has done a commendable job making his squad competitive.
Chambers suffered a similar situation Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan experienced at the beginning of the year when veteran guard Josh Gasser went down with a torn ACL. Just four games into the season Chambers saw his best player, 2012 First Team All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier, go down when he ruptured his left ACL.
Losing Frazier, who averaged 21.7 points and five assists in the three complete games he played, took away a dominant, athletic scorer and a skilled distributor off the dribble. But, Chambers was able to turn it around, developing redshirt sophomore guard D.J. Newbill and junior guard Jermaine Marshall into solid offensive options.
The duo combined to wreak havoc on the offensive end against the Badgers last Sunday, combining for 45 of Lions’ 60 points. Both players shot 9-of-20 from the field, with no other player on the roster shooting more than five times.
“They’re good at those floaters, those mid-range shots,” Fahey said. “That’s what they’re looking for. Those are shots that they like to take and those are shots we usually force teams to.”
Still, if UW faces Newbill and Marshall again Friday afternoon at the United Center it will have to limit penetration in the paint. This holds especially true for Newbill, who has solid court vision and dished out five assists against Wisconsin this past Sunday.
If Penn State does beat Michigan and advance to the quarterfinals to play Wisconsin, the Badgers will most likely stay with their same plan of attack that they used the last time around: Try to get the ball down low to Berggren, as the center poses a severe mismatch because of Penn State’s lack of size, and hope their outside shot is on, stretching any sagging defensive help on Berggren to the perimeter.
The Badgers will hope that Dekker, an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection, continues his role as a Lion tamer if the team does meet them in the first round of the tournament. Last Sunday the talented youngster gave UW 14 points off the bench despite struggling from the field.
“It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be an experience I’m going to cherish,” Dekker said. “I’m going to play my heart out. I don’t want our second season to be cut short because I feel we have a lot of basketball left to play.”