Who: 14-7 (5-3) Michigan State Spartans
When: Sunday, Feb. 1, 1 ET (CBS)
Where: Breslin Center -- East Lansing, Mich.
Somehow, despite not having the services of Derrick Walton (and Mark Donnal), the Wolverines found a way to grind out a convincing win against a Nebraska team that had come into Tuesday's game winning four of its last five.
How did Michigan do it? This might sound funny, but they did it not with the startling offensive efficiency it flashed the past two seasons -- they did it with defense. Yes, Michigan has basically become 2013-14 Northwestern during that one stretch in which the Wildcats somehow found themselves winning at Indiana, at Wisconsin and at Minnesota. The difference, of course, is last year's Northwestern team was 5-5 in the league after all of that; this Michigan team is 6-3. How, I don't know, but they are.
As of writing this (i.e. Thursday night), Walton's status is still unclear. If he does play, he'll continue to be hobbled, a tough but seemingly 75 percent version of his normal self.
Against Nebraska, Michigan found a way. But this is a different ballgame, one in which it will need someone to make those tough shots.
Last year, Walton buried a three at Michigan State to tie the game at 58 with just under six minutes to play. In the final three minutes, he knocked in nine of his 10 free-throw attempts.
Who will be the guy this time around if Walton doesn't go?
Not unexpectedly, given MSU's departures, it's been a bit of an up and down season in East Lansing.
MSU is 2-5 against RPI top 50 teams, with wins against Indiana (Jan. 5) and an impressive beating of Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Jan. 8). In the loss column, nonconference defeats came against Duke, Notre Dame (by one, on the road) and Kansas, all very good teams. They also have suffered two losses to Big Ten neophyte Maryland, first at home in double overtime and then at Maryland by 16.
Despite a 3-1 league start (including a win against Northwestern at home in overtime), the Spartans have gone loss-win-loss-win since. After the initially scheduled Jan. 27 game at Rutgers was postponed to last night, the Spartans drubbed the Scarlet Knights, 71-51, with Branden Dawson putting up a monstrous 17 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Bryn Forbes added a team-high 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting (4-for-6 from three).
The familiar triumvirate of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and the aforementioned Dawson lead the way for MSU. Trice paces the Spartans with 14.3 ppg, shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc in the process. However, he's hit just 39.5 percent from two.
Valentine checks in at 14.2 ppg and shoots 42 percent from three. He attempted 114 triples last season, hitting 37.7 percent of them; this year, he's already launched 109 of them, and he's hitting at a much higher rate.
While Trice and Valentine are serious threats from outside, Dawson is the guy who presents the biggest matchup problem for Michigan. Averaging a double-double (11.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg), he's just the sort of player who can hurt the Wolverines (unfortunately for Michigan, Kentucky seemingly had 10 such players in that Elite 8 matchup).
Forbes, a 6-foot-3 junior transfer from Cleveland State, is a gunner, hitting 46 percent of his triples. Lose him, and it's a nearly 50-50 proposition whether a three is about to get splashed.
Rounding out the primary contributors, forwards Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello and Javon Bess contribute a little something, with Schilling and Costello scoring 7.2 and 7.5 ppg, respectively (4.6 and 5.6 rpg, respectively).
The freshman 5-foot-10 guard Lourawls Nairn Jr. hasn't made much of an impact yet (1.8 ppg, 0-for-3 from three), but he did have his best game of the season at Rutgers last night, scoring eight points on 4-for-4 shooting.
- Find the shooters. When the pace picks up, and it surely will in stretches, whether Michigan can find the ball in transition will prove key. Trice isn't shy to bring it up and take the shot himself if there's a sliver of an opening, and both Valentine and Forbes are deadly from outside as well. Yes, three-point defense might be partially a product of luck, but the Wolverines are first in league play in three-point field goal defense, holding opponents to just 30.3 percent. That will have to hold up Sunday afternoon if the Wolverines want to have a chance.
- Find the Dawson. Similarly, when the ball is coming up the floor with pace, Michigan has to know where Dawson is or it will be lob/offensive rebound city. This means redirecting him at the elbow; like a wide receiver, you can't just allow him complete freedom to move. This might result in a foul or two that you don't want, but that's better than letting him run free en route to another putback slam. This might be cliche B1Gspeak, but physicality can be a great equalizer when it comes to a superior athlete like Dawson. Of course, with Michigan playing so much zone these days, rebounding in the halfcourt becomes even harder. The last time these two teams met in the Big Ten tournament championship game, Dawson scored 15 on 7-for-8 shooting.
- Shine on, youngsters. Michigan's 6-3 start would not have been possible without the incrementally improved output of guys like Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. Playing in front of a seemingly very hungover Ohio State crowd is one thing; playing at Breslin is another. If Walton is out, the burden of production shifts to Zak Irvin, first, then the youngsters. That's a lot to ask, but at this point, there's nowhere else to turn. If they falter, that wouldn't be surprising -- if they don't? Well, that would be something, another large drop in the "future is bright" bucket.
Realistically, without Walton, this is probably not a game Michigan can win. You can only go so far before the reality of your roster catches up with you, even for a coach like John Beilein, who could probably craft a tournament team with a Diet Coke can as his center and a particularly springy rubber band for a point guard.
If he does play, though, maybe there's a chance. Michigan State has been far from perfect this season, but as everyone knows, this is not just another game.
To be honest, it's difficult to make a serious prediction without knowing Walton's status. Operating under the assumption that he does, playing at approximately the level he had before missing the Nebraska game, Michigan might have a chance to hang around.
Even if he does, though, I'm not sure Michigan will be able to overcome MSU's outside shooting, Dawson's above-the-rim game and, of course, the Breslin environment. When the Spartans visit Ann Arbor Feb. 17, it'll be a different story -- this time around, I'm not sure this resilient Michigan squad has enough to pull this one out. Michigan State 67, Michigan 56.