Well, here we are. Michigan went to Madison, participated in the cheese rolling competition of the natives, as is tradition, and very nearly caught the cheese; that is, before a late charging Badger, careening wildly down the hill, knocked into and momentarily incapacitated them at the base of the hill. By the time the Wolverines had a chance to gather themselves and crawl through the mud to the finish line, the Badgers had already retrieved the cheese. So it goes.
Okay, I promise that is the last time I will refer to that admittedly fairly awesome cheese rolling thing.
Anyway, the Wolverines have now dropped three games, which somehow feels like a lot more. The number itself doesn't bother me so much. This is a tough conference, and we all knew that Michigan would drop some, even back during the halcyon days of non-conference play. However, the three losses grew incrementally in the lingering frustration they yielded. The Ohio State loss was unfortunate, but given that horrific start, was surprisingly easy to get over. Indiana: a bit frustrating because Michigan once again got ambushed from the start, but Indiana is, at this point, the best team in the Big Ten in my opinion. Wisconsin? We don't have to talk about that. Wisconsin? Bo Ryan? What are you talking about, man? I don't even know.
In my preview the other day, I wrote that Michigan, in addition to holding serve at home, probably needs to pick up one win in this two-game road stretch at Wisconsin and at Michigan State. Well, we know how Saturday went, so now we turn our attention westward, to East Lansing.
As Chris Vannini explained yesterday, from the outside, the 2012-13 Spartan basketball team is kind of like the Millennium Falcon: a rusty bucket of bolts that is just getting by, through all the nagging injuries and close calls. And yet, the Spartans are 20-4 (9-2), tied for first in the toughest iteration of the Big Ten in some time. After all, the Falcon did help to blow up the Death Star, twice.
After a road loss at The Barn, MSU has won nine of its last 10 games, including a big win at the Kohl Center and a competitive five-point defeat at Indiana. On paper, an impartial observer might think that this team doesn't stack up to some of Izzo's squads of the past, and that might be a fair assessment. Nonetheless, all that matters is right now, and right now, this looks like one more serious challenge on Michigan's schedule.
This being the first meeting of the season, the roster bears some introduction. The Spartans are paced by six foot one inch junior point guard Keith Appling (14.1 ppg, 4.1 apg), who leads the team in field goal attempts (250) and is second in three-point attempts. Despite what either of them might say, the Burke-Appling matchup is a pivotal one. Last season in the Breslin Center, Appling et al held Burke to just 4/11 from the field for 11 points, including just four assists to four turnovers.
Six foot four inch freshman guard Gary Harris comes next, averaging 12.7 ppg and shooting a sterling 43% from beyond the arc (a team high). In his last five outings, Harris has shot 53% from the field overall, and an even better 56% from three, helped out greatly by a superb 5/10 effort from beyond the arc at Assembly Hall. Harris only took six shots at Purdue on Saturday, but Michigan will need to be ready to check him; Michigan has made overrotating a habit of late, leaving open three-point shooters all over the place. Throw in Nik Stauskas's penchant for reacting to even to the slightest shot fake, and this matchup on the defensive end could be the antithesis of a real good time.
Of course, the Spartans also trout out an effective pair of bigs in Adreian Payne (9.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 54% from three--!) and Derrick Nix (9.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg). Wisconsin only boasted an offensive rebounding percentage of 22% on Saturday, but for some reason it felt like it was much worse. In any case, Michigan needs to clean up on the glass against these guys. Assuming Jordan Morgan is still out, the pressure will once again be on Mitch McGary to produce around the basket and rein in his crunkosity on the defensive end just enough to put himself in position to rebound MSU's misses.
Rounding out the starting five is the six foot six inch Branden Dawson (10.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who seems to be doing just fine for himself after an ACL injury suffered last March. Dawson is not a three-point threat, but he is shooting a cool 56% from the field, and can certainly attack the basket and finish with authority. Once again, whether it's Tim Hardaway Jr. or Glenn Robinson III checking him, the Wolverines need to be aware of his presence, or we could see some Zeller-esque putback dunks off of misses.
As Vannini mentioned yesterday, backup point guard Travis Trice's status for tomorrow is uncertain (he has missed MSU's last two games). If he cannot go, six foot five inch freshman Denzel Valentine will take his place. Averaging 21 minutes per game, Valentine has put up 5.3 ppg and a solid 4.0 rpg; however, he's just 33% from three on 40 attempts.
- Pick and roll. Of course, this is probably the most practiced thing by Big Ten opponents when preparing for Michigan. Nonetheless, Burke and Co. need to be able to generate some buckets this way. It's unfortunate that Morgan is currently hobbled, because a JMo pick and roll thunderdunk was always good for morale back in the day. Poor JMo. Whether or not Burke can get this going in the first half before things devolve into STEPBACK THREE FOREVER time will go a long way toward deciding the tenor of this game down the stretch.
- FINISH. Lost in all the moaning and gnashing of teeth after the Wisconsin loss is the simple fact that Michigan couldn't finish down the stretch. Yes, some of those plays probably should have resulted in a trip to the line, but that is just a fact of life. Whether it's McGary or anyone else, Michigan cannot afford to let its transition opportunities go to waste, because we know how the half court game can go sometimes with this team.
- RUN THE FOOTBALL. Fun stat: did you know that the team that runs the ball for more yards in this rivalry almost always wins? Wait, sorry, wrong sport.
- Don't split up, gang, no matter what Fred says. Michigan did just fine at the outset of Saturday's game, not allowing themselves to get snowed under as they did at OSU and at IU. The same will need to happen tonight if the Wolverines are going to be in position to pull off the W in a hostile environment. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. will need to find ways to settle this team by getting to the basket early, whether in transition or the half court.
- Box out. Pretty simple, but Michigan absolutely must clean up on the defensive glass, especially since the Spartans are just ninth in in offensive rebounds per game during B1G play (9.9 per).
- During Big Ten play, Keith Appling is just 45th in the conference in turnover percentage at 16.5%.
- Adreian Payne is second in the conference (during conference play only) in effective field goal percentage at 62.3%.
- Pace-wise, Michigan State might as well be the basketball equivalent of Oregon football, averaging 64.5 possessions per game, third in the conference during B1G play. Michigan, meanwhile, is eighth, averaging 63.2 possessions per.
- Once again, free throw rate could be one of the primary deciding factors. As we all know, Michigan is dead last in the conference in free throw rate during conference play (26%). Michigan State is fifth 37.6%). If Michigan attempts only two free throws again, achieving victory will be much harder than it already is.
- The two squads are almost identical in points per game allowed during conference play, with Michigan allowing 62.7 and MSU 62.9 per.
Ending Thoughts, Predictions, Etc.
Up until Brust's circus shot, my Wisconsin prediction (64-61, Michigan) was looking pretty good. This game, however, is a little tougher for me to get a handle on.
My faith is admittedly not too high in either Stauskas or GRIII getting much going, although I would be perfectly happy to be wrong if Stauskas busts out a 2011-Stu-Douglass-at-MSU performance. However, given recent trends, it seems unlikely. On the other hand, given the fact that MSU plays a little faster ("fast" being a relative word in the world of Big Ten basketball), maybe GRIII will get a few more of those transition opportunities that he subsisted upon when times were good.
Otherwise, it all comes down to whether or not Burke and Hardaway can make enough plays, efficiently or not, to make up for the decrease in Stauskas/GRIII's production.
There is also the wild card that is Mitch McGary, who really isn't so much of a wild card of late, having scored in the double digits in each of his last three games. If McGary and Horford --who had a fairly poor outing on Saturday-- can get close to neutralizing MSU's bigs, Michigan has a solid shot at winning.
Unfortunately, these sorts of games always boil down to a gut feeling, stripped of statistical and even historical considerations. My gut tells me Michigan falls just short once more before returning home for a much-needed contest against the conference's worst team. Michigan 67, Michigan State 69.