(Also, I stopped by TOC to answer some questions. I bitch a lot about the Penn State game, so beware.)
Michigan State's defense seemed to have all the answers last time these teams met, holding Michigan to a season low .8 ppp. What did the Spartans do right in that one, and do you think that effort is repeatable?
The biggest key by far was MSU's pick-and-roll defense. It's a staple of the U-M offense, and MSU just completely shut it down. Luke Winn at Sports Illustrated had a chart detailing how many times MSU stopped it or directed it somewhere else. It was odd, because MSU's ball-screen defense has generally been poor this season, and it's been bad in the last two games against Indiana and Ohio State. Maybe because it's Michigan, the Spartans have more focus on it, but in the last two meetings (both in EL), MSU has completely stifled the ball-screen. It's yet to be seen if MSU can stop it with Burke in Ann Arbor.
That's what really set up the whole thing. They hedged enough to make things difficult for Burke (though he did have a great game), but it made things even more difficult for everyone else. That will have to happen again.
While Michigan has two terrible games against Penn State on its resume, the Wolverines have also done a good job taking care of business against most of the Big Ten's middle to lower class. As an outside observer of Michigan basketball, what do you take from Michigan's performance against the Nittany Lions vs. its season as a whole?
The feelings going into this game are interesting on both sides. U-M is coming off one of the worst losses for anyone this season, but MSU is coming in on a two-game losing streak. Both teams have major questions. Yet it's still the second-ever top-10 matchup between these teams, with the first obviously being the previous meeting.
As for U-M's loss? I don't know. Given the two Penn State games stand out, I want to say the Nittany Lions are just a tough matchup for U-M? Kind of like how Northwestern seems to always play Ohio State tough. But watching that game, there were some major things that I'm sure are worrisome for U-M folks. The first obviously being the defense. Penn State just got open look after open look from 3, and then scored efficiently from 2. The Nittany Lions also were pretty good on the boards, if I'm not mistaken. Those are the two things that are always a worry with Beilein teams: defense and rebounding. Then again, the first Penn State game was the first after the loss in EL, and the second was prior to a big home matchup. Possible a young team hadn't recovered and then was looking ahead? Maybe.
I still think this is a very good team, and I'm probably more confident in them than most U-M fans. I saw a tweet from Noah Trister of the AP that I thought was well-put: Michigan is now a team that can make the Final Four if it gets hot, rather than being a Final Four favorite that would only lose if someone else got hot. All is not lost yet.
Is there anything that worries you about Michigan State's ability to score against Michigan, or do you think the 1.15 ppp number is easily repeatable. What have other teams done to slow Michigan State's offense down?
For this MSU team, I don't think those scoring numbers are easily repeatable against anyone. The game plan is obviously going to be the same, though. Go inside-out. When MSU's offense is working, it's getting the ball to Derrick Nix in the post to start things. Now, how U-M defends that is going to be a bit different, I imagine. Then again, Jordan Morgan being back could help that. But maybe U-M decided to double a lot quicker? Maybe it depends on how the first few possessions go.
I also think MSU's jump-shooting will struggle a little more on the road. Even Gary Harris hasn't been as efficient from 3 in the past few games, though he has picked up his driving. That also takes us to Keith Appling, who has struggled mightily in the last two games. Appling wasn't super efficient in the first meeting between these teams, but he played great defense and did still score. In the last two, he can't score, and he can't defend. That's a major problem. Appling is going to have to play good defense, but also score some buckets and take better care of the ball on Sunday.
What are Michigan State's keys to victory?
First is the ball-screen defense. I mentioned it above, and I think it's easily the biggest key for MSU in this game.
Second is hitting the shots close to the hoops. This means Nix, Adreian Payne, Brandon Dawson and Gary Harris (when he drives) are going to need to finish at the hoop. Sometimes, Nix has a game where he just misses a lot of close looks at the bucket. MSU is going to go inside, and they need to score there.
Third is rebounding. MSU was terrific on the glass on both sides of the court. Michigan still remains a very good defensive rebounding team but MSU grabbed 36 percent of its misses in the first meeting. Given I expect a close game, every extra possession will be key. U-M hasn't been a great offensive rebounding team, and MSU needs to keep it that way.
How do you see this game playing out? Final score prediction?
U-M fans seem to be picking an MSU win, while Vegas and KenPom are going with U-M. I'm expecting what I expected in the first game: a close game that comes down to the final minutes. Given the recent problems with U-M are probably more worrisome than the problems with MSU, I'll pick MSU by two points, with Appling making some big plays down the stretch. But I certainly wouldn't be surprised by a U-M win.