ANN ARBOR – Michigan coach John Beilein wasn’t sure what to expect from his team when Big Ten play got underway.
If their efforts in their conference opener were any indication, the Wolverines seem more than capable of holding their own.
Looking to extend its season-best winning streak to seven games, No. 18 Michigan tries to open 2-0 in league play for the first time in five seasons Sunday against visiting Minnesota.
The Wolverines (11-2, 1-0), whose only losses came against then-No. 6 Duke and currently ranked Virginia last month, continued their impressive season Thursday with a 71-53 win over league foe Penn State.
“You are always curious to see how your team is going to come out in the first conference game, and I was happy with what I saw,” Beilein said. “Obviously, you have to win your home games in this league, because it is so tough to win on the road.
“We’re still a huge work in progress, there’s a lot of evolution going on out there, but I like the direction that we’re going.”
Michigan has outscored opponents by an average of 15.3 points during its six-game run. The Wolverines have taken five of six in this series, though they fell 69-64 to then-No. 15 Minnesota in the most recent matchup at Ann Arbor on Jan. 22.
The Golden Gophers (12-2, 0-1) are coming off an 81-72 loss at Illinois in double overtime Tuesday. Senior Ralph Sampson III matched a career high with 22 points to go along with a season best-tying nine rebounds.
Sampson has picked up the pace since leading scorer Trevor Mbakwe, who was averaging 14.0 points per game, suffered a season-ending torn ACL on Nov. 27. The 6-foot-11 Sampson has averaged 13.6 points and 50.0 percent shooting over his last five games – 7.8 points better than he posted over his first six.
The Gophers will likely need another big effort from Sampson if they hope to keep up with Tim Hardaway Jr. and a Michigan team that’s shooting 50.4 percent over the last 10 games.
Hardaway, averaging 16.2 points, scored a season-best 26 on Thursday. Evan Smotrycz had 10 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double in as many games.
“The problem with playing Michigan is that if you try to stop Hardaway, Zack Novak can hurt you, or Evan Smotrycz or Trey Burke,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “There’s just a lot of depth over there.”
Smotrycz is averaging 16.6 points and 67.6 percent shooting to go along with 9.6 boards in his last five contests, during which he’s gone 17 of 23 from 3-point range. Burke, a freshman, is averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 assists over the same stretch.
Since then-No. 2 Minnesota prevailed 55-54 at then-No. 24 Michigan on Feb. 26, 1997, the Gophers have dropped 38 consecutive road games versus ranked conference opponents by an average of 14.6 points.
(Copyright 2012 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.)