For Michigan, flurry of games starts with trip to struggling Penn State

Juwan Howard might think he’s back in the NBA.

Michigan’s trip to Penn State on Tuesday starts a three-games-in-five-days run in the middle of a five-games-in-11-days stretch.

That steady stream of competition is more common at the pro level than in college, but various postponements earlier in the season have backloaded Michigan’s schedule (in more ways than one).

“We’ll figure it out,” Howard said on Monday. “We will not make any apologies. We’re not the only team in the country that will have to experience (this).”

Monday was Howard’s 49th birthday. What do you get a guy who’s living his dream?

How about a win? His team needs one on Tuesday, at least in the sense that not getting one would put even more pressure to deliver against the Big Ten’s elite down the stretch.

Michigan (11-9, 5-5) enters the busy back half of its Big Ten slate against a Penn State team (9-10, 4-7) that has really struggled offensively under first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry.

Penn State’s scoring struggles were magnified last time out, Saturday at Wisconsin. A couple minutes in, Seth Lundy hit a 3. The Nittany Lions did not score again for more than 10 minutes. They had 13 points at half and finished with 49. That they only lost by two doesn’t change the fact that offense has been a problem all season.

So it was a bit surprising that Howard, when asked what stood out about the Nittany Lions, highlighted their shooting. Then again, Michigan’s defense has made a lot of offenses look good this season.

Howard has seen better defensive communication the past couple of games, though it was hard to tell on Saturday, against the country’s top-rated offense in Purdue. Michigan countered most of Purdue’s runs but was outgunned in the end and fell 82-76.

Hunter Dickinson had another monster game, matching a career-high with 28 points. It’s hard to see him giving Michigan morebut Howard dismissed that notion with a laugh.

“There’s always room for growth,” Howard said. “If you feel like you’ve made it or arrived or have nothing else to work on, you might as well retire from the game of basketball. And I know Hunter is not ready to retire.”

Dickinson will go against the undersized but tough and battle-tested John Harrar, a 6-foot-9 center who took advantage of the COVID-19 waiver to return to Penn State for a fifth season. Harrar is an excellent rebounder who plays his role well.

Both teams lean heavily on their starters. Michigan’s lack of bench production is one reason why the team isn’t where it wants to be.

Howard provided one of his favorite sayings, “all hands on deck,” to describe what will be required during this flurry of games. From a competition standpoint, Michigan eases into this stretch. Penn State is 90th in the NET rankings and has lost four of five. After that matchup, Michigan has home games with Purdue and Ohio State followed by road trips to Iowa and Wisconsin, all of which are in the top 22 of the NET. Iowa and Ohio State show up on the schedule again, as do Illinois and Michigan State.

It’s a daunting final month, but the Wolverines, in desperate need of some résumé-boosting wins, have no choice but to embrace it.

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