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HEISER: For York County basketball fans, Wednesday will offer must-see television event

STEVE HEISER
717-505-5446/@ydsports
  • Penn State plays at Michigan in men's college basketball at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
  • Michigan features former Spring Grove High School standout Eli Brooks.
  • PSU is 13-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten, while Michigan is 11-6 and 2-4.
  • The game will be broadcast to a national audience by the Big Ten Network.
Michigan's Eli Brooks is seen here in action earlier this season against Oregon. The Spring Grove High School graduate is averaging more than 11 points per game and shooting nearly 40% from 3-point range.

Normally, an NCAA Division I college basketball game in the heart of January wouldn’t generate much interest in York County.

After all, there aren’t any D-I programs located in the county, and for most folks, the college hoops season doesn’t really get compelling until March Madness approaches.

Wednesday, however, will be a different story. That night, there will undoubtedly be thousands of York County eyes on the Big Ten Network at 7 p.m.

That’s when Penn State is scheduled to tip off against Michigan at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor in a pivotal men’s contest for both programs.

Coach Pat Chambers, seen here in a file photo from earlier this season, has led Penn State to a 13-5 start this season.

PSU is relevant: The PSU men’s team has typically been an afterthought in these parts, living under the enormous shadow cast by the football program.

This season, however, things are a little different in Happy Valley. Coach Pat Chambers' crew is actually relevant. In fact, the Lions have a decent shot at earning an NCAA berth.

After a desperately needed 90-76 home win over Ohio State on Saturday, which ended a three-game  skid, PSU stands at 13-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten. Michigan, meanwhile, enters at 11-6 and 2-4.

So, quite naturally, the huge number of PSU grads in York County suddenly are showing a lot more interest than usual in the Nittany Lions. There were certainly a number of local grads at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday afternoon, when the Lions played in front of a season-high crowd of nearly 15,000. That turnout is a testament to the growing regional interest this season in the Lions' basketball program.

Michigan coach Juwan Howard shouts to players during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Iowa on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette via AP)

Brooks breaks out for Michigan: The Wolverines, of course, feature York County’s own Eli Brooks.

The Spring Grove High School graduate became a folk hero in the county during his legendary prep career for the Rockets. Then, when he committed to one of the nation’s blueblood basketball programs, local interest in Brooks spiked even more. Players from York County just don't land at programs like Michigan. Until Brooks, of course.

Now, the ex-Rocket is enjoying a breakout junior season at Michigan under first-year head coach Juwan Howard, a former member of the Wolverines' Fab Five teams from the early 1990s. After seeing relatively little action his first two years at Ann Arbor, Brooks is starting for the Wolverines this season and averaging more than 11 points per game while shooting nearly 40% from 3-point range.

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Brooks is coming off a career-high 25-point effort on Friday against Iowa. Like PSU’s effort against Ohio State, Brooks desperately needed a strong outing. He had been suffering through a midseason shooting slump.

Spring Grove grad Eli Brooks enjoys career night in slump-breaking effort for Michigan

Despite his best efforts, however, the Wolverines dropped that game to the Hawkeyes, 90-83, and have dropped three of their last four games.

Both teams on the NCAA bubble: In the latest NET rankings, Michigan is slotted at No. 29, and PSU is No. 35. For the uninitiated, NET stands for NCAA Evaluation Tool. It’s the primary ranking system used by the NCAA Selection Committee when choosing the teams for March Madness. 

If today were Selection Sunday, those rankings would put both PSU and Michigan firmly on the NCAA bubble.

PSU wants to prove it can win on road: So, Wednesday’s game is vitally important for both teams.

PSU wants to prove it can actually win on the road in the Big Ten. The Lions have dropped their three conference road games by an average margin of more than 16 points.

HEISER: Penn State men's basketball program offers fans an actual reason for optimism

Big Ten road wins this season, however, have almost been as rare as snow in May. That shouldn’t be surprising. There are almost no walkovers in the brutally rugged Big Ten this season, with 12 of the 14 teams ranked in the top 50 nationally in the NET rankings. Top to bottom, it's the strongest conference in the nation.

Wolverines want to stop slide: Michigan, meanwhile, is out to stop a skid that has seen it slide completely out of The Associated Press Top 25 after soaring to as high as No. 4 early in the season.

The Wolverines, however, have won their last three home games by an average of 25 points and are 8-1 at the Crisler Center overall this season, with the only setback coming in overtime vs. an Oregon team that is currently ranked No. 12 by the AP. Michigan has won its last six games vs. PSU in the Crisler Center.

HEISER: Spring Grove High grad Eli Brooks overcomes struggles to thrive for Michigan

So, Michigan, playing at home, would certainly have to be considered the favorite, but it would be a major surprise if the Wolverines routed the Lions. The teams are too closely matched. Vegas has Michigan as a 5 1/2-point favorite.

Must-see TV in York County: Nationally, of course, this game is just another contest pitting two good — but not great — teams struggling to garner the attention of the NCAA Selection Committee.

In York County, however, it will be markedly different. This is the only regular-season meeting scheduled between the two teams this season, which should only heighten the interest around here. Barring a meeting in the Big Ten Tournament, this will be your only opportunity to see this match-up this season.

A fabled York County player enjoying a breakout campaign, a suddenly relevant Penn State program and a game with significant NCAA implications on national television.

It has all the makings of a must-see TV event for local basketball fans on Wednesday.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.