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Opponent Preview: #9 Michigan State

Regardless of the circumstances, Michigan and Michigan State will always be a high-stakes, emotional game; Michigan is the Spartans' biggest rival and the feeling is reciprocated when the maize and blue and the green and white take the hardwood. These passionate rivalry games bring out the best in teams across the country, and this in-state rivalry is one of the better rivalry games year in and year out. Add in the elevated importance of this year's matchup -- both teams are ranked in the top twenty, State is at the top of the Big Ten standings and Michigan is only a half game back, and Michigan finally re-energized the rivalry by breaking a long losing streak with two wins over MSU last year -- and this game is only going to be better. I was in the stands for the UM-MSU game in Ann Arbor a year ago and it was easily the best college basketball atmosphere I've seen in Ann Arbor. With two better teams and more on the line this year, it should be an even better game in the Crisler Center this year.Michigan State has exceeded preseason expectations and is a very strong unit. Michigan keyed their second half turnaround with two wins against an overrated and mediocre Michigan State team last year, but the Spartans are much better now than they were a year ago.

Players to Watch:

Senior forward Draymond Green is the heart and soul of this team and his energy and leadership have been huge reasons for this teams' success (his team-leading 15.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game haven't hurt). Green hasn't done particularly well against Michigan so far in his career (KJ pointed out that he's averaged only six points and four rebounds per game against UM, and Zack Novak's defense got the best of Green in Ann Arbor last year as Draymond was only 3-14 from the field), but his combination of size, uncanny passing ability, extremely aggressive rebounding and surprising three point proficiency makes him State's best player. Keith Appling is Michigan State's other go-to guy: he's done well playing out of position as he replaced Kalin Lucas at the point guard spot. Appling had two of his best non-conference performances against Duke and Florida State, but struggled for stretches early this year. He turned it on once Big Ten play started and has averaged over 17 points per game in Michigan State's five Big Ten games. Appling is a proficient scorer who gets to the rim and the free throw line well, but his outside shot hasn't been very good. The inside combination of Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne has replaced Delvon Roe well for State's frontcourt -- Nix lost a lot of weight and has become a much, much better player and Payne is a big body (6'10") inside to score around the basket and grab rebounds. Fifth-year transfer Brandon Wood has provided an ability to get to the lane and score from the perimeter, but he's a decent three point shooter (37.7%) who can knock them down with ease when left open. True freshmen Travis Trice and Branden Dawson have filled important roles for the Spartans -- Trice is a lethal shooter and a decent passer as the backup point guard and Dawson is an athletic former five star as a 6'6" forward -- and former walk-on Austin Thornton has provided valuable minutes for MSU.

Four Factors for Big Ten Play:

Offense Conf. Rank Defense Big Ten Rank
eFG % 55.1 2 44.9 2
TO % 18.1 5 18.4 8
OR % 38.9 1 30.5 5
FT Rate 38.2 2 35.0 7

Michigan State is very good at crashing the glass, getting to the line, and converting 2 point field goals when they're on offense. Michigan's interior defense will need to play very well to slow down the Spartan offense and Michigan has actually played much better defense inside than outside for the entire year. Michigan State's defense isn't quite as good as their offense is, but they still do a very good job of challenging shots with their size across the board.

So far this season...

Michigan State started the season off with two very tough neutral site games against North Carolina and Duke and each team won comfortably against the Spartans. Not much can be drawn from the outdoors aircraft carrier game against North Carolina, but Duke shot the ball extremely well on offense and kept the Spartans from using their size to grab offensive rebounds. Michigan State then promptly ran off fifteen straight wins, including a home win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against Florida State, a tough road win against Gonzaga, and the end to Indiana's undefeated season. There was also a key road win in overtime against Wisconsin; even though the Badgers aren't that great this year, that's still impressive. Their impressive winning streak was stopped in State's last game as Northwestern won a 81-74 decision in Evanston. Michigan State did really well on offense but their defense was torn to shreds by Northwestern's efficient shooting from inside and outside with an array of cuts and screens. NU also limited turnovers and Michigan State forced the fewest they have all year.

Key questions for tonight's matchup:

  • Can Michigan shoot the ball? The Wolverines are actually pretty efficient shooters (20th nationally in eFG %) but have had their four worst shooting performances of the season in the last five games. Tim Hardaway Jr and Evan Smotrycz are good shooters who have gone cold, so hopefully they start to hit sooner than later. Trey Burke could also be a little more efficient with his shooting as well. Michigan needs to convert their shots at a good clip to stay in the game -- if they look like they did against Northwestern, State will blow them out of the water.
  • How well will Draymond Green do this time? I mentioned earlier that he did poorly against Michigan last year in Ann Arbor and he hasn't done particularly well against the maize and blue so far in his career. It will be interesting to see who Michigan throws at him: Novak will probably be tasked with guarding Green because of his ability to shoot from the outside. Novak is sacrificing some of the inside strength that Smotrycz has, but his quickness and craftiness on defense should be an asset.
  • Is fatigue really catching up with the Wolverines? This will be Michigan's fifth game in a span of thirteen days, and it looked like they were pretty lackadaisical and listless against Iowa on Saturday. Players like Burke and Hardaway have been playing a ton of minutes so far this season, so it's pretty reasonable to assume that a stretch like this will catch up to them eventually. Hopefully Michigan fights through any tiredness they might have; I know they'll be emotionally prepared for this game but who knows if they can compete with such a physical team for forty minutes.
  • Our senior captain does better than theirs does as Novak gives a pretty good duplicate of his 19 point performance a year ago and frustrates Green on the defensive end.
  • Hardaway and Smotrycz continue to shoot poorly from the field and combine to go something like 2-11 on three point attempts.
  • Keith Appling and Trey Burke each give an impressive performance on the national stage and state their cases as two of the best young point guards in America.
  • I'm a homer: Michigan wins, 68-67