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The Futility of Hope: Michigan 73, Penn State 64

There are so many things that make college basketball great. The student sections give the game an energy and passion that simply can’t be matched by the NBA. The individual brilliance of certain players who can take over a game in a way that seems almost impossible. The thrill of the one-and-done tournament, where, on any given day, a team such as George Mason or Lehigh can turn all the Vegas oddsmakers and office pool experts into seething lunatics. The love of your alma mater, and subsequent hatred of your conference rivals, born or bred into you in such a way that they become part of the fiber of your very being. Hell, there’s even a guy who exclusively preaches zone, and he’s a Hall of Famer. College basketball is a strange, brilliant blend of everything wonderful about James Naismith’s invention and “amateur” athletics. It’s basically perfect.

Penn State basketball, somehow, finds a way to make you forget all of that. It takes something that should fill you with so much joy, and turns it into a masochist’s errand. In previous years, this was simply by virtue of leaving you hopeless. As a fan, having no realistic expectations of success is one of the worst things that can happen, but at times it is understandable. The fallout of Ed DeChellis’ departure, Pat Chambers waiting to fill a team with his recruits, Tim Frazier’s injury. All of these events are understandable when you’re looking to rebuild a program.

This year was supposed to be different, though. Year four of Chambers’ tenure bred optimism to start the season by most people on this staff. Maybe we were naïve, and as I sat in press row for the Morgan State game, several other writers on the beat told me as much. But a 12-1 start against a weak non-conference schedule had our hopes high. Sure, George Washington was the only major win, but it was a hell of a win. We ran a likely tournament team out of the BJC. Even when we let bad teams stay close, we pulled out wins. The Drexel game was concerning in the last few minutes, as we let a bad, shorthanded squad back into a game they had no business being in, but it was a win nonetheless. Wisconsin was never a game we were going to win. They’re too deep, too talented, too well-coached. They’re a legitimate national championship contender, and Penn State decidedly is not. That loss was okay.

But the Rutgers game hurt. It was probably the worst loss this senior class has ever seen. It was ugly, boring, brutish basketball. Hell, calling it basketball is an affront to the game itself. This team walked into Piscataway, took on an absolutely terrible Rutgers team, and found a way to play down to their opponents in a way seemingly unfathomable. D.J. Newbill had nothing. Brandon Taylor continues to be invisible. They hoisted stupid threes like nobody’s business. They embarrassed themselves in a game they really needed for their tournament dreams.

The only thing worse than being hopeless is having your hope dashed time and time again. When you think they’re improving, they drop a clunker to Rutgers, then stay just close enough to Michigan after yet another terrible start that you thought maybe, just maybe, they’d pull this one out. But that’s what a good team would do. Instead, John Johnson took a terrible three, DJ Newbill turned the ball over, Michigan hit their free throws, and the Lions dropped to 12-4.

They drew you in. They drew everyone in. You thought this was the year it changed. Hell, if we get a few upsets and a nice Big Ten Tournament run, it still could be. They were 6-1 in games decided by five points or less heading into the Michigan game. But turning on the Nittany Lions becomes an exercise not in futility, but in self-flagellation. This team is infuriating on so many levels. They give you hope – and that’s the worst part. You get just excited enough for the result to hurt.

This team is the culmination of all things Penn State basketball. The future is still bright for the Nittany Lions, but the present has brought a lot of heartache. Buckle up for the rest of this season. If this stretch is any indication, you won’t enjoy the ride.

How It Happened

The game opened up with Penn State’s traditional complete inability to begin a basketball game in a positive manner. Michigan went on a 10-2 run before Pat Chambers and the Big Ten Network called their respective timeouts. A jumper from the surprisingly effective Donovon Jack (4/4 from the field, 4 rebounds, a block and, shockingly, no fouls) started the game back up, and the two teams would trade shots for a stretch, with Penn State actually maintaining a lead for about three minutes. The wheels came off as the clock ran down though, and Michigan would go on a 14-4 run in the last 5:30, including seven points for Zak Irvin. Irvin found his stroke against the Nittany Lions, finishing the day 2-of-4 from deep and 6-of-9 from the floor (Editor’s note: Nice) for 17 points to go along with 9 rebounds. Caris LeVert drew a foul with two seconds left and hit two free throws, and Penn State was down 36-29 heading into the break.

The second half started without much change. DJ Newbill hit a jumper and knocked down a free throw to pull the game within four, but Irvin erased those gains with a three ball off a LeVert assist, and Michigan would maintain at least a six point edge for the first eight minutes of the half, wherein Penn State made just three field goals. For a team clawing trying to claw its way back into a game, it was not a pretty sight. After an Aubrey Dawkins three extended the Michigan lead to 10, John Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands. Flipp is the team’s instant offense guy, the sixth man who can heat up at any moment. Tonight, he drained four three balls, all crucial to keeping the team in the game, and finished with 16 points and tied for a team-high 3 assists (which, ugh). Penn State pulled the game within two on Jack’s and-one slam, Newbill’s deep ball and, gasp, Brandon Taylor hitting a jump shot! Derrick Walton would hit a jumper to end the run, but not soon after Jordan Dickerson took a Shep Garner pass and slammed it home, and Newbill followed it up with a layup to tie the game at 53. That was as close as it would get.

Jon Beilein then called a timeout, because Jon Beilein is a smart man. Garner proceeded to foul Walton on a low-percentage three-point shot, and Walton hit all three free throws coming out of the TV timeout that almost immediately proceeded Beilein’s. Then, Penn State did Penn State Things. BTitty missed a jumper, standard for a night in which he was a brutal 1-of-10 from the floor in a team-leading 34 minutes(!!!), got the offensive rebound, then turned the ball over. Michigan was missing shots for the first time all night, but Penn State got nothing going. Ross Travis, who had another mostly useless performance, turned it over again, and D.J. Newbill missed the front-end of a one-and-one, but the game was still very winnable at 56-53 with over five minutes to play. LeVert would then trade buckets with Garner, Jack and Newbill for the next three minutes, and the score was 62-60 with two minutes to play. Penn State got a rebound off a missed one-and-one by LeVert, but Flipp decided to play heroball and launched a terrible three when a two with some ball movement would’ve sufficed. It didn’t go in, because God hates Penn State basketball. Irvin would get the rebound and the dagger of a jumper that followed. Newbill would turn the ball over on an ill-fated drive in the next possession, which was enough for Penn State to take itself out of the game. Michigan would hit 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch, and even with a Johnson miracle three to cut the lead to five, it wasn’t enough. 73-64 final at the BJC, and Penn State is on its first significant losing streak with little help in sight.

Player of the Game

Caris LeVert, who took over down the stretch for Michigan. He was 6-of-8 from the field, including a perfect 2-of-2 from three to lead the Wolverines with 18 points. “That’s what big time players do” Pat Chambers said of LeVert’s domination down the stretch, courtesy of ESPN. He did the opposite of what, well, anyone on the Penn State roster save for maybe Johnson or Newbill has done the last three games: make big plays when it counts. LeVert is uneven, and those who clamored for his inclusion as a preseason All-American were reaching, but when he’s on, he’s one of the hardest players in the country to stop.

Goat of the Game

Brandon Taylor, whose last five games are some of the most brutal basketball played by anyone in the nation averaging 30 minutes per game. Over that span, he has shot a putrid 25 percent from the field on 13-of-52 shooting, including under 25 percent from three (7-0f-29). Taylor has decided to fancy himself a legitimate wing, capable of scoring outside and inside. That’s wonderful, except he’s been absolutely atrocious at both since the beginning of Winter break. Titty’s complete collapse may have reached rock bottom today, when he was 1-of-10 from the floor in 34 minutes, played mediocre defense, and generally looked lost at all times. For a guy who supposedly busted out in non-conference play, he’s been an unmitigated disaster in his three Big Ten games. He can’t shoot and he can’t finish at the rim, which probably isn’t good when you’re supposed to be the offense’s third option. We’ve seen how good Taylor can be (see the Charlotte, Marshall and GW games), and Penn State has to hope he’ll get it together when classes begin again and the Lions take on Indiana in Bloomington.

Tweet of the Game

The tweet of the game comes from OS Alum Bill DiFilippo, who pointed out that there was no chance for Penn State to mount a comeback with three players essentially accounting for dead weight on offense.

Takeaways

Brandon Taylor either needs to find his shooting stroke fast, attack the rim more, or see his minutes cut. I discussed him above, but Taylor has been brutal. Hopefully this is his bottom-out and he gets his game back.

Ross Travis gave 18 minutes of pretty much wholly useless basketball. I like Ross Travis. I think he’s a great glue guy, the best rebounder on this team, and can be capable of guarding any position on the floor when need be. He’s also been a complete non-factor on offense for the better part of a month. He started the year pretty well, especially the 14 point outburst against Bucknell, but has shot under 30 percent from the floor since the Marshall game a month ago. He needs to find a way to turn his athleticism into a semblance of an attack, because allowing defenders to sag off of him and help other men hurts the offense as a whole.

Flipp needs minutes. John Johnson was the best non-Newbill player on the floor for the Lions in a season-high 27 minutes. He’s an excellent instant-offense player, but this team simply isn’t scoring well enough right now to afford playing him limited minutes. Maybe some small ball three guard sets could work out, or more consistently spelling either Garner or Newbill. It’s up to Pat Chambers to figure out how to incorporate the man who has shot 44 percent from the field over his last four games, including a cool 50 percent from three.

The frontcourt is a mess, but Donovon Jack might be coming to the rescue. Jordan Dickerson was a complete non-factor, his two blocks unable to make up for being a black hole on offense and his zero rebounds. That’s right, Penn State fans: your starting center didn’t have a single rebound in 19 minutes on the floor. Woof. We touched on Taylor and Travis, and Payton Banks and Julian Moore are assuredly not the answers (although Banks may begin to take on more minutes just out of necessity). As insane as it sounds, Jack was probably the third-best player on the court for Penn State. Limited by his propensity to commit a billion fouls the second he walks on the floor, Jack showed how effective he can be if he can limit the personals. In just his second game with fewer that three fouls, he took on important minutes and grabbed four boards and a block. He certainly didn’t look like the player who fell apart against Rutgers. I’m not gonna say he’s turned a corner, but maybe there’s something there. We were very high on him in the pre-season, after all.

Dying by the three. Penn State shot 7-0f-20 from outside today, not a terrible number, but not a particularly good one either. Meanwhile, doesn’t it feel like every team has their best shooting days against Penn State? Michigan was 9-of-15 from outside, and while teams are shooting just 32.1 percent from outside on Penn State, that number is 43.9 percent since conference play began. Pat Chambers needs to tell his team to take smarter shots. It’s tempting to say he needs to yank guys for launching ugly threes, but the fact is the seven players in the rotation represent just about all of Penn State’s depth this season. He has to do a better job of game-managing for sure, because he’s been badly out-coached in three straight games.

D.J. Newbill’s back might eventually break from putting the team on it, but he has to take care of the ball. It’s hard to ask anything more of Newbill, but that final turnover on the drive was back-breaking. It’s hard for him to trust many of his teammates right now, but it’s also hard to play heroball when you receive constant double teams and face three men in the paint on a drive. Someone, please, help D.J.

What’s Next

Penn State has dropped to 112th in KenPom, a 100% decline from when they started the season 56th. They’ll look to bust the slump on Tuesday, Jan. 13 against Indiana in Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers can score, but have been mediocre on defense, and could be the team to reignite the Penn State attack. Or it could be another heartbreaking loss that pushes the Nittany Lions even further from their March dreams. Who knows? Let’s find out together!

Photo: GoPSUSports

About the Author

Noel Purcell

Noel Purcell is Onward State's Features Editor. He's a senior Supply Chain major, but is going to law school at some point in the future and masquerades as a writer for now. He continues to disappoint his ancestors by being a complete Irish stereotype. His email is [email protected] because there were no other Noels before him. His ex-wife got the good half of his bio in the divorce settlement.

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