March 14, 2013

BTT: Penn State pre-game notes

Nobody would have predicted the No. 6 team in the nation to be the No. 5 seed in its conference tournament - even in the Big Ten. But that's where Michigan finds itself, awaiting a Thursday tip against Penn State.

Here are a few pre-game thoughts and notes, on an earlier-than-expected arrival in Chicago…

• Michigan has never lost its first game at the Big Ten Tournament under John Beilein. Obviously, today would not be the day to break that string, in the 5-12 contest and with a weekend of NCAA Tournament position jockeying ahead.

If the Wolverines learned anything in the numbing loss in State College a couple of weeks ago (and they say they learned plenty), it's not to relax for even a few seconds against an "inferior" opponent. The Nittany Lions have played foes tough enough of late to have everyone's attention.

• The Wolverines need to grab a lead and hold it. Sometimes, on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament, there are some open spaces in the stands. Not so at the United Center, with Illinois playing in the opener. It's packed here.

Should the crowd stick around - and it stands to reason most of it will - the typical dynamic will surface. Underdogs are crowd favorites, and anyone playing Michigan is a crowd mega-favorite.

That means if the Nittany Lions get it going, it's not a neutral venue anymore. All those sporting anything but maize and blue turn into Penn State fans, and U-M inherits a road environment.

• Michigan fans will be hoping for the officiating crew of Lamont Simpson, Ray Perone and Larry Scirotto to remain healthy in Michigan's tournament opener. The standby official is Mike Kitts, not a fan favorite of late.

• Strange as it sounds, Michigan has not beaten Penn State in Big Ten Tournament action, sitting on the ugly end of a 0-2 deficit. The teams have not met in the tournament since 2001, in which Penn State knocked out U-M in a first-round game, 82-80.

• A sweep of the weekend's contests would do plenty for the Wolverines - in terms of NCAA seeding, a conference tournament championship, pride, extra Chicago-style hot dogs, etc. - but it wouldn't get them even with the board in Big Ten Tournament action.

Since the tournament began in 1998, the Wolverines stand 8-13. A sweep would pull them one game away from the .500 mark.

• Two X-factors for the Wolverines, in this tournament and the next - junior Tim Hardaway, Jr. and freshman Nik Stauskas. Both are capable of torching an opponent, but both have been streaky over the past month.

The duo finding an affinity for the United Center rims (Michigan did not have time to get into the facility extensively beforehand) could make the difference between heading home for the weekend or staying in Chicago right up until the NCAA pairings are announced.

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