Michigan-Penn St. Preview
By ALAN FERGUSON
(AP) -- Heading into the final day of Big Ten play, Michigan remains in contention for its first regular-season conference title in 26 years.
If their top two scorers can once again deliver some strong shooting performances, the 13th-ranked Wolverines might fulfill half of their required scenario by beating Penn State on Sunday.
Michigan (22-8, 12-5) has won five of six to stay within one game of No. 5 Michigan State. The Spartans will face No. 10 Ohio State later in the afternoon Sunday, so a win over the Nittany Lions (12-18, 4-13) would lead to some scoreboard watching for the Wolverines and their fans.
"We're stressing with these young men that this is what we were fighting for all year long," coach John Beilein said. "We're going into this game really focused on the opportunity we have in front of us."
If they complete that favorable scenario, Michigan would share the title with Michigan State and Ohio State at 13-5, but the Spartans would own the No. 1 seed for the upcoming conference tournament.
The Wolverines hold the tiebreaker over the rival Buckeyes and can clinch the No. 2 seed with a win or an Ohio State loss. The top four teams in the conference earn a bye into the quarterfinals.
Michigan could use a performance like Thursday's 72-61 win at Illinois, especially another strong effort from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke.
Hardaway scored 25 points while making six of seven shots and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds. Burke added 21 points, second-most in his career, while connecting on seven of his 13 attempts and broke a single-season school record for a freshman with his 143rd assist.
The two players, both averaging 14.5 points, have been streaky this season as they've had nine games apiece in which they've shot 33.3 percent or worse. Hardaway has shot better than 40.0 percent in 16 of the 30 games while Burke has done so in 13 contests.
Before the win over the Illini, Hardaway said he spent extra time working on his shot.
"I just made sure I got into the gym all week, 30 minutes before practice and then stay after practice," he said. "I got a lot of shots up and make sure my mechanics were down pat."
Michigan is hoping those efforts will pay off as it seeks a fourth consecutive win over Penn State and its sixth in seven matchups. The Wolverines beat the Nittany Lions 71-53 on Dec. 29 as Hardaway made a career-high 11 field goals and scored a season-best 26 points.
Michigan has also won in its last two trips to the Bryce Jordan Center but they needed a late 10-0 run to pave the way for a 65-62 victory there Feb. 6, 2011. Hardaway scored all of his 13 points during the last seven-plus minutes.
Penn State, loser of three in a row, enters this matchup after enduring one of its most lopsided defeats of the season, 80-56 at Purdue on Wednesday.
As he has been for much of this season, Tim Frazier was one of the lone bright spots for his team. The junior guard scored 24 points and tied Talor Battle's single-season school record of 189 assists during that loss.
Frazier is averaging a conference-best 6.3 assists and is second in the league with 18.8 points per game. He had 20 points and four assists during the loss to then-No. 18 Michigan in December.
Updated March 3, 2012