Date: Feb. 23rd
Location: Crisler Center
Michigan State Spartans (21-5, 10-3)
When Last We Met: Michigan walked into the Breslin Center, playing with what pretty much the entire fan base felt was house money after wins at Wisconsin and vs. Iowa, and somehow weathered the storm long enough to snatch the lead and the game thanks to a great day shooting outside and from the free throw line. It was an impressive and paradigm shifting win for Michigan at the time, putting the ball firmly in Michigan's court in the race for the conference title.
Since Then: Things have evened out. Michigan State dropped a game to Wisconsin and then was upset at home by Nebraska. Michigan put up three lackluster performances, two of them being road beatings at the hands of Iowa (okay) and Indiana (/shakes head solemnly). Michigan also lost its most recent game — a home game against Wisconsin in which the Badgers pretty much controlled things from start to finish, Nik Stauskas was once again harried into a poor game, and the defense looked helpless.
Of course things haven't been sunshine and lollipops for the Spartans, who are 3-4 over the last seven games (including the loss to Michigan in East Lansing). One of those games — against Georgetown — was a non-conference game, but every time the Wolverines have fallen back in the conference race, Michigan State has matched with a loss of its own. The teams are still tied at the top of the Big Ten with three losses apiece, but the loser will be forced into a tie for second place with Iowa.
What Will Be Different: Adreian Payne will play. This is, how do you say, less than Ideal. Payne is just the sort of front court matchup nightmare that Michigan just failed miserably against as Jordan Morgan et al looked one dimensional against Frank Kaminksy. Of course, with Matt Costello also available, Payne could see a lot of time across from Glenn Robinson III (or, gasp, Zak Irvin). This probably won't go so well.
Branden Dawson is likely going to be out for this game, but he might not be the only one. Keith Appling played through injury last time these teams met on his way to a double-double with ten each of points and rebounds. Since then he has missed three consecutive games and only returned last weekend to play in the loss against Nebraska. Tom Izzo hasn't made up his mind whether it is worth it to continue playing him and risk not having a fully healthy Appling for the NCAA tournament:
"I guess I've got to be careful - I'll restate it, I guess I appreciate it if everybody took it the same way, that's my stupidity," Izzo said when asked to clarify on his initial news conference statement. "But if it isn't better today, tomorrow, I can't worry about (him playing against) Purdue and Michigan. ... You just have to worry about getting him healthy for the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA tournament."
If he does play against Michigan — and he played against Purdue last night, although his scoring load was diminished and he had four turnovers — he will be a problematic matchup on both ends. That is, especially if Michigan State follows the lead of a few other teams and mixes up its matchup on Nik Stauskas. Last game the Spartans tasked Gary Harris with guarding Stauskas, and while he did well given the circumstances, Indiana (and later Iowa and Wisconsin) have shown that you can shut Stauskas off by denying him the ball and attacking him with smaller quicker defenders. Placing Appling on Stauskas would also free up Harris to cover Caris LeVert. That pair of defensive assignments would go badly for Michigan.
What Should Be The Same:
For one, Michigan will rely on a lot of Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. Both played very well in the first game and helped Michigan ice it down the stretch. With Stauskas's offensive funk becoming a period, these two have taken on more responsibility as initiators on offense. Neither are as efficient, and Michigan State does a phenomenal job of limiting penetration and defending the perimeter. If MIchigan can get these two into the lane it could lead to foul trouble for Michigan State (on the road in the Big Ten).
Unfortunately, Michigan will not be able to rely on Glenn Robinson III. In the last seven games GRIII has scored in double figures just two times. The first was against Nebraska (he had 23 in a blowout win at home) and the second was against Wisconsin in a game where he scored 10 points in 32 minutes. In MIchigan's three recent losses he has had a combined seven turnovers and just 11 rebounds.
Keys for Michigan: First and foremost this game will come down to who has the advantage on the glass. If Michigan State wins the rebounding battle decisively, there is little chance Michigan is able to keep up. Last time the Spartans built an impressive overall rebounding margin that Michigan was able to cut into and turn around in the latter part of last game.
This time around Michigan will need to keep these numbers even. The Wolverines didn't dominate on the boards last game, but they did manage to post a solid win against a team that is in the top 25 of defensive rebounding teams. A 36 to 29 percent advantage on the offensive glass is huge, and it will be hard to replicate with Michigan State adding Payne back into the mix.
This also leads to the second important key to winning: Michigan has to take advantage of home court by getting to the free throw line against this Michigan State defense. Last time these teams met Michigan was able to even up the fouling advantage (the numbers are skewed because of the end of the game strategy to foul) after falling behind by a large margin in the first half.
Finally, Michigan can't fall behind early. One of the overlooked parts of the first game was how Michigan's 4/4 start from the field was a major factor In Michigan weathering the first half storm once Michigan State started rolling. If Michigan doesn't jump out to that eight point lead that game could have ended up looking a lot more like Michigan at Iowa a couple weeks later. The same thing happened against Wisconsin and Ohio State, as both teams ran layup lines early against an overwhelmed Michigan defense.
While Michigan has shown the ability to come back (the Wolverines beat Ohio State and closed the gap on Wisconsin to three points), it isn't easy to do, especially against a team as complete as Michigan State. A cold start is the last thing Michigan's inconsistent offense needs when it has shown a recent tendency to stall for minutes at a time as of late.
Outlook: I was much more confident in this game in the wake of the last one. Michigan was looking like a team on the rise and the Spartans had failed time and time again to slam the door on Michigan in the Breslin Center — something I am almost wholly unfamiliar with as a Michigan fan.
The Wolverines do have some advantages. Michigan State still isn't 100% healthy, and looks to be without at least one of its starters (Dawson) if not two (Appling, assuming Izzo isn't just spending a week before the Michigan game telling every media outlet how he is totally going to sit his point guard for the biggest Big Ten game of the year despite having no actual intention of doing so). Michigan also gets to play this game at home where the whistles will likely be a little more Michigan friendly than last time. On top of all of this, the Wolverines get a week off in between last game and this one, so rest and prep time won't be an issue.
However, it always seems like games against Michigan State come down to two things: defense and rebounding. Michigan won the last game because it shot the lights out, but that was just enough to keep Michigan close and then to protect the lead with free throws. The turning point in the game was between 13:30 land 2:00 left in the second half when Michigan outscored Michigan State 27-11. This was also when Michigan's defense stepped up and when the Wolverines evened the rebounding margin. Great shooting kept Michigan in the game. Defense and rebounding earned Michigan the lead.
Can Michigan — a team with defensive issues that have been exposed all season — go stop for stop with Michigan State down the stretch? Can Michigan keep its advantage on the boards with Adreian Payne back in the game? Can Michigan once again shoot 58% from 3pt and 83% from the line? Now, can Michigan do all three of these things and do so with its two best players in troubling slumps?
I worry that Michigan can't do all these things, or at least that it can't do enough of them to sustain an advantage with Nik Stauskas AWOL and Adreian Payne back. This feels like a game in which Caris LeVert scores a forgettable 24 points, Stauskas and Robinson are largely absent and Michigan State dictates the flow of the game with its defense and rebounding.
Kenpom sees Michigan winning 71-67. I see it the other way, with Michigan State coming out with a close, but not too close win in Ann Arbor. That is unless the Michigan team that spent all January playing decides to show up.