Wolverines move to 4-0 in the Big Ten

Michigan remains unbeaten in Big Ten play with an 80-67 victory over Penn State on Tuesday night.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

ANN ARBOR — Believe it or not, the Michigan Wolverines are tied for first place in the Big Ten.

It might only last 24 hours — Michigan State can take a half-game lead by beating Northwestern on Wednesday night — but it still an impressive achievement for a team that is still trying to replace the three best players from last year’s NCAA tournament run.

By beating Penn State 80-67 Tuesday at the Crisler Center, hours after Indiana had stunned third-ranked Wisconsin at Assembly Hall, the Wolverines moved to 4-0 in the Big Ten. That gives them the same record as the Spartans, and a six-game winning streak after a 6-4 start to the season.

With Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the NBA and Mitch McGary sidelined after back surgery, Michigan coach John Beilein never knows which of his players will be ready to step forward on any given night. Against the Nittany Lions, it was freshman guard Derrick Walton who got the team off to a flying start.

Walton scored the first eight points of the game, including a pair of 3-pointers, and the Wolverines had a lead they would never relinquish. Walton didn’t make another 3-pointer, but the threat of his outside shot meant that Penn State had to guard him on the perimeter. With his speed, he was able to get to the basket enough for a 16-point night.

"He’s as quick as a jet," Beilein said. "When he makes a couple outside shots, they’ve got to take him seriously out there, and that’s a huge advantage for him."

Walton is still struggling with turnovers — he had three against Penn State with three assists — but has now scored in double figures in Michigan’s last three games.

"The first couple games of the season, everything was going really fast for me," he said. "Now, after watching a lot of film and working at it, the game is starting to slow down."

Walton and Spike Albrecht combined for 19 points and four assists, and even if they don’t have the presence or game-breaking ability of Burke, those numbers will serve the Wolverines perfectly well. The same is true of the veteran duo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, who are now filling McGary’s shoes after he replaced them in last year’s tournament run.

Against the Nittany Lions, Morgan and Horford had 19 points and nine rebounds, and did it with efficiency. They only missed one field goal and one free throw, and only turned the ball over once. Again, while they don’t have the raw skills of McGary, the two of them are working together to fill a hole.

"Everyone knows their role on this team," Horford said. "We’re playing Michigan basketball, and we know what to do. It’s all about looking for open shots."

One of the keys to Michigan’s success is that when they find those open shots, they are able to knock them down. Michigan made 46 percent of its jumpers on Tuesday, a number that dwarves the efforts of the Pistons, who struggle on a nightly basis to hit 30 percent of their outside shots.

That shooting is the reason that, even when Penn State cut the deficit to two points early in the second half, the Wolverines never looked like they were in serious trouble. 

Nik Stauskas drew a foul and hit two free throws the first time the game was as close as two, and hit a 3-pointer the second time. Michigan quickly moved the margin back to 12, including a spectacular alley-oop from Caris LeVert to Glenn Robinson III, and the game was as good as over.

Things get much tougher for the Wolverines in the next two weeks — they play three ranked teams in a row in Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, with only the Hawkeyes coming to Ann Arbor — and this is still a team that’s a long way from winning a conference title.

Right now, though, the standings read Wolverines and Spartans tied at 4-0, and for the fans in Ann Arbor, that’s good enough.