Who: Michigan State, 17-8 (8-4)
When: 9 ET (ESPN)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
Sitting at 13-12 (6-7), the tournament is but a far-off mirage for the Wolverines, as is the notion that I will not eat more than one paczki today.
So, when a team like Michigan State comes to town, it's really about no more than that day and that game. It means nothing, yet also carries weight. It's entirely unimportant, but its outcome will affect you, positively or negatively, whichever way the wind blows.
Unburdened by expectations, it's simply time to play ball: one champion, one vanquished, on a frigid Tuesday night in Ann Arbor.
Since these teams last met, in what was the second of Michigan's trio of heatrbreaking overtime losses, the Spartans have gone 2-1. They followed up the win against the Wolverines with a 59-54 loss against Illinois, a disappointing defeat since they ambushed the Illini early, jumping out to an early 10-2 lead.
Tom Izzo's squad quickly bounced back, however, with a 68-44 thumping of Northwestern in Evanston and a 59-56 win against Ohio State at the Breslin Center. The Spartans currently sit at the four-spot in the Big Ten, three games behind Wisconsin, who, like Michigan last year, is running away with the regular season title (despite missing its starting point guard, to boot).
By now you know these guys. Again, check the last preview for a complete rundown.
The last time these teams met, Denzel Valentine went off for a game-high 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting (4-for-9 from beyond the arc), grabbed seven boards and recorded two steals. He's put up 16, 14 and 17 points in his last three games.
Branden Dawson once again flexed his muscles against Michigan, notching a double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds), and adding three steals and two blocks. He's going to do what he does; for Michigan, it's all about damage control vis-a-vis the hyperathletic Dawson.
Matt Costello was a major factor in the Spartans victory, scoring 10 points, reeling in seven boards and recording four blocks; with that said, Michigan can't let that block figure deter them from attacking the basket, especially at home. This means attacking early, as there's no better way to neutralize a rim protector than by sending him to the bench.
Point guard Travis Trice had a relatively quiet afternoon on offense (8 points, 3-for-9 from the field), but made up for it by finding his teammates (nine assists). With that said, I'm not sure the Wolverines can count on another modest night from the field from him. He's had a bit of a tough time of late, however. In his three games since the Michigan game, he's shot 11-for-32 from the field (34%), and while he shot 40 percent from three in that stretch (6-for-15), four of those makes came against Northwestern, with 1-for-5 and 1-for-4 marks against Illinois and Ohio State, respectively.
- Contain Dawson. The reality of this Michigan team is that guys like Dawson and Indiana's Troy Williams are going to have their way with the Wolverines, who are short on size and overall athleticism. With that said, guys like Dawson and Williams are good not just because Michigan lacks ups; they're good because they're elite athletic talents. Once again, physicality is key. Part of it starts with guys like Ricky Doyle knowing when to leave their man to help and potentially block a shot and knowing when to stay home. Move to block a shot and fail to do so and you're looking at a putback slam from Dawson on more occasions than you'd like.
- Keep attacking. Guys like Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman had great success aggressively driving to the basket last time around. They also, however, had their fair share of shots swatted by Costello et al. Nonetheless, Michigan just can't heave and hope from beyond the arc. While his drives to the basket often seem like desperate supplications, Spike Albrecht will have to pitch in a few of his patented scoop shots -- which he hit Illinois with on a few occasions -- to keep the Wolverines in it.
- Finish. This is about as close to #WinTheGame as you can get without actually saying it. If Michigan is once again in position to, uh, finish the game with more points than its opponent, it's time to finally do the thing. Against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois, Michigan has collapsed in overtime periods, by virtue of a combination of fatigue and youth. Asking this team to win a 40-minute game is already a lot -- extending a game by five whole minutes is just asking to see its win probability plummet like Midwestern temperatures. It's a rivalry game, Michigan is at home and hungry to prove they can close: who will be the hero? Overtime is anathema, thus I say #Play40. Literally, play 40: any more and Michigan is probably losing, if precedent means anything.
I've always said that I: a) don't like making predictions, because people read these things (if they read them at all, that is) and reduce everything written here to the haphazard guess made herein and b) it's college basketball, so who really knows?
I've also always said that when it comes to rivalry games, the home team always has a fighting chance. Despite the temperatures outside, I'd imagine the Crisler Center will be hopping more than it has at any point thus far this season. Of course, crowds don't win games.
Dawson will get his and Valentine will hit his shots, because he's a good player, and that's what good players do. This game will come down to whether or not Albrecht can neutralize Trice, and whether or not Doyle, Mark Donnal and Max Bielfeldt can do work against Costello and Gavin Schilling. Also, of course, can Zak Irvin return to the form he showed against Indiana, or will he continue to struggle without other players able to create good looks for him?
Against my better judgment, based on nothing other than "it can't happen again, can it?", I think the Wolverines just might end the slide tonight -- the Wolverines hold the Spartans on the final possession, and emerge with the victory, pushing them back to .500 in the league. Michigan 64, Michigan State 63.