For Penn State basketball, this transitional year has been plagued with starts and stops, moves forward and back.
Take, for example, the month of February. The Nittany Lions, who remain winless in Big Ten play, have been within single-digits in every game but one this month.
They took Iowa to the wire before losing 74-72 (Feb. 14); they fought Purdue tough before losing 58-49 (Feb. 5); they suffered another five-point loss recently, losing at Illinois, 64-59 (Feb. 21); and, of course, they gave Michigan quite a scare before falling 79-71 in Crisler (Feb. 17).
But the one game the lost by more than 10 points? A 67-53 beatdown at bottom-feeding Nebraska.
So far, eight of Penn State's 14 losses in Big Ten play have come by single digits, fighting in games despite a talent deficiency.
Such is life for a team that is still searching for its first win in 2013 (Penn State hasn't won a game since Dec. 29, beating Duquesne, 84-74).
But Michigan coach John Beilein sees a lot of fight in these Nittany Lions.
"This is a team that's on a mission," Beilein said on his weekly radio spot. (The team left Ann Arbor a day early because of inclement weather and did not host its usual pregame media availability.) "Teams have their goals: win get in to the NCAA Tournament, win the conference championship. Penn State has their own goal. They do not want to be a team that doesn't win any games in Big Ten play. They arte united in their mission."
Penn State has four more chances to notch a conference win, starting tonight at 6:30 p.m., when the Wolverines and Nittany Lions tip off in Happy Valley. After that, Penn State has games at Minnesota March 2, at Northwestern March 7 and vs. Wisconsin March 10.
And with four games left, the team is still learning to cope with the loss of senior point guard Tim Frazier, who ruptured his Achilles' tendon in November.
Last year as a junior, Frazier ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.8 points per game), first in assists (6.2 assists per game) and second in steals (2.4 per game) while playing an impressive 37.1 minutes a game.
He was undoubtedly the team's leader in the early goings, scoring 21.7 points a game in the Nittany Lions' first three games.
"Without Tim Frazier, it's been a tough adjustment, because he is as good as they get," Beilein said. "But they play hard, they play smart. They are playing to win, and that has been important as they continue to grow as a team. They hit the boards hard against us, they ran really good stuff that we did not react to the ways we should have. We have to play a lot better at their place."
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