Despite being ranked sixth in the nation at the moment, the Michigan Wolverines still find themselves playing in the first round of the 16th annual Big Ten Conference Tournament as they battle the Penn State Nittany Lions at the United Center on Thursday afternoon.
The fifth-seeded Wolverines began the season with a 16-game win streak, but the team was tripped up a few times by conference foes, the last setback coming against second-ranked Indiana in the regular-season finale this past Sunday, 72-71.
As for the 12th-seeded Nittany Lions, they were at the other end of the spectrum in terms of conference success, opening the league slate with 14 consecutive defeats. At one point PSU was one of only two teams in the nation (Grambling) that had not won a conference outing. Penn State did manage to finally break through against this same Michigan squad, and then two games later delivered a 66-59 win against Northwestern on the road.
Michigan's history in this tournament is a bit cloudy, with the team's 1998 championship versus Purdue having been scrubbed from the record books due to NCAA rules violations. Officially, the Wolverines have a record of 8-13 in the event, compared to PSU which is slightly ahead with nine wins in 24 opportunities.
As far as the all-time series is concerned, the Nittany Lions show Michigan as having a 28-12 advantage, although PSU stunned the Wolverines back in late February by a score of 84-78 at home when the visitors were the fourth-ranked team in the country.
The winner of this meeting will be back in action on Friday afternoon versus fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
The season was sent spiraling out of control for the Nittany Lions when just four games in the team lost Tim Frazier to a season-ending injury. Without their top scorer the Lions fumbled their way to a total of just 10 wins on the campaign and a mere two in conference. In those league outings, D.J. Newbill (16.4 ppg) and Jermaine Marshall (16.2 ppg) have been trying to give the group a fighting chance, but scoring a collective 58.8 ppg rarely gets it done. Newbill was responsible for 4.2 rpg and was also first with 75 assists, but those efforts still did not compensate for his 28.9 percent shooting from the floor. Hitting an average of two triples per game, Marshall is slightly more reliable out on the perimeter, but still PSU hit on just 29.9 percent from beyond the arc in league action.
The Wolverines get their drive from Trey Burke, the Big Ten Player of the Year and a unanimous choice for the All-Big Ten First Team after he led the way in scoring with 20.2 ppg in league action. A 40.4 percent shooter beyond the arc in those 18 outings, Burke was also far-and-away one of the top passers in not just the conference but the country as well, averaging better than six dishes in league play and turning the ball over a mere 36 times. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (14.1 ppg) was always a clutch contributor on the outside with his 40 percent shooting beyond the arc, while Glenn Robinson III (10.1 ppg) was much more of an interior presence with his 5.1 rpg, which was tied for the team lead with Mitch McGary (6.2 ppg) who did his damage almost exclusively off the bench.