After surviving a poor start to conference play a season ago to reach the NCAA tournament, Michigan is confident it can avoid stumbling out of the gate this time around.
The No. 18 Wolverines look to win their Big Ten opener for the first time in five seasons Thursday night when they host Penn State and new coach Patrick Chambers.
Michigan (10-2) began 1-6 in Big Ten play in 2010-11 before recovering to split its 18 conference games. The Wolverines, 7-0 at home and winners of five straight, feel things will be different now.
“We know what to expect, we know the level of play that it will take,” senior guard Zack Novak said. “I definitely don’t expect to start 1-6 again. I think we learned our lesson through that.”
Michigan has not played since last Thursday’s 77-66 win over Bradley in which all five starters reached double figures. That type of team play pleased coach John Beilein, who is not concerned about the early struggles last season.
“I don’t even want to think about what’s down the road or whatever,” Beilein said. “I just want to see what we can do to get to 1-0.”
The lone victory in the 1-6 conference start was a 76-69 home win over the Nittany Lions (8-5) on Jan. 2. Michigan also won 65-62 at Penn State on Feb. 6.
Those matchups were highlighted by high-scoring duels between Michigan’s Darius Morris and Penn State’s Talor Battle. Morris was a second-round draft pick by the Lakers while Battle graduated as the Nittany Lions’ all-time leading scorer.
This season’s perimeter matchup could feature the Wolverines’ Tim Hardaway Jr. and his team-high 15.4 scoring average against the Nittany Lions’ Tim Frazier and his team-best 17.4 mark.
Frazier is among the nation’s leaders with his conference-best marks of 7.2 assists per game and 7.8 free throw-attempts per contest.
“Frazier is obviously really good,” Novak said. “He’s getting to the foul line a lot, scoring for ‘em, I know he’s quick.”
Frazier is the linchpin for Chambers, the energetic coach hired after guiding unheralded Boston University to the NCAA tournament in his second season before leaving to coach the Nittany Lions.
Chambers has installed a style of play that has seen Penn State average 22.9 3-point attempts despite shooting a conference-worst 31.5 percent from the arc. The Wolverines also like to shoot the 3, averaging 23.8 attempts while connecting at 37.4 percent.
“They are very similar to the way we’ve played at times with a lot of 3-point shooting,” Beilein said. “They are still working to establish an inside game.”
Another interesting matchup is between 6-foot-1 freshmen guards Trey Burke of Michigan and Trey Lewis of Penn State. The former AAU teammates last met in the 2011 Ohio Division I high school state semifinals, with Burke’s Columbus Northland team winning 67-59 over Lewis’ Garfield Heights team.
Burke - second on the Wolverines with a 13.0 scoring average - captured Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball” honors, with Lewis finishing as the runner-up.