Who: #10 Michigan State Spartans (19-4, 6-4 Big Ten)
When: Saturday, February 6th, at 2:00 p.m. ET (CBS)
Where: Crisler Center -- Ann Arbor, Mich.
It's Michigan vs. Michigan State. Usually, nothing more is needed to describe the stage of this game. Whether both schools are jockeying for first place in the Big Ten or just fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth, it's a must-win game. And that's even more of the case this season because, unless the Wolverines and Spartans meet again in the Big Ten Tournament, the loser will have no shot at redemption. Thanks to conference realignment and the decision not to implement protected rivalries into the Big Ten schedule, this is the only regular-season matchup between the in-state adversaries.
However, putting the rivalry aside for the moment, this game has an added importance for Michigan after the whipping it received from #22 Indiana on Tuesday. With a homestand against the Hoosiers and Spartans this week, this was a prime opportunity for Michigan to add some quality wins to prove that it's a legitimate Big Ten title contender or at least further separate itself from the bubble. To spoil it by being swept at home could be disastrous given that the Wolverines' four games thereafter are at Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Ohio State, and at Maryland. This is not a time to start reeling. Michigan must win this game to regain its confidence and push forward for a tournament berth.
Accordingly, this would be a great time for Caris LeVert finally to return. Beilein:
"We’d love to have [LeVert] back, there’s urgency to get him back, but that’s up to his health, that’s up to God’s will, there’s a lot of things. We can’t say ‘Let’s hurry up and get him back,’ his healing process has to hurry up and get back."
That was after the Indiana loss. Still doesn't seem good. We'll learn more today.
Michigan State seems to be back on track after a rare three-game losing streak in the middle of the month. The Spartans were ranked #1 in the human polls after the non-conference portion of the season, during which they went undefeated with some impressive wins against Kansas, Providence, Louisville, and Florida, and no one batted an eye when they suffered their first loss on the road against a then-underrated Iowa without Denzel Valentine. But Valentine returned for their home rematch with the Hawkeyes, and, instead of exacting revenge as most anticipated, they were manhandled again by the Hawkeyes. Then this was followed by consecutive one-point losses against Wisconsin in the Kohl Center and against Nebraska in Breslin. Doubts began to surface about whether this MSU team had lost that mojo that powered it through the non-conference slate. But, since then, the Spartans have toppled Maryland and eviscerated Northwestern and Rutgers. Accordingly, MSU is sixth on KenPom. They're just fine.
For the third straight season, Michigan State has a top-15 offense, and this one may be its best one of the last decade under Tom Izzo. The Spartans are seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency (117.9) thanks to their shooting (22nd in eFG%) and selflessness (1st in ast%). Their incredible passing allows them to get lots of open looks, which is why they make 51.2 percent of their twos (79th) and 41.4 percent of their threes (7th). In typical Izzo fashion, they also do an excellent job keeping possessions alive on the offensive glass (21st in OR%). But that's where their strengths begin to end. MSU is a bit above-average in turnover rate (120th) and below-average in free-throw rate (277th).
Defensively, Michigan State has a top-25 unit, ranking 23rd in adjusted efficiency (94.5). The Spartans are so strong on that end of the floor because they have the best shooting defense in the nation (1st in eFG%). Opponents have made only 40.7 percent of their twos against MSU (5th) because MSU blocks nearly one-fifths of its opponents' shots around the rim (2nd). The Spartans also excel at defending the perimeter, not only limiting the three-point looks offenses have (63rd in 3PA%) but also contesting the looks they do have (4th in 3P%). And opponents need to make their first shots of the possession to score because Michigan State is seventh in defensive rebounding rate (76.7 pct.). However, like their offense, the Spartans' defense is weaker in turnover and free-throw rates. In fact, only three teams force fewer turnovers than MSU (348th in TO%), while MSU's physical, handsy defense can lead to frequent whistles and trips to the line (120th in FTR).
Michigan State has one of the deepest teams in the country, and Tom Izzo tries to find minutes for many of his reserves, which is why the Spartans are 10th in minutes allocated to the bench. However, the one Spartan that averages at least 30 MPG is National Player of the Year contender Denzel Valentine, the 6-foot-5 senior that is the nominal small forward but plays more like a point forward. He plays that role because of his versatility. He's the second-leading scorer in the Big Ten (18.5 PPG). He fires more threes (43.2 3P%) than twos (50.0 2P%), but he can score from anywhere on the floor. He's the fifth-leading rebounder in the Big Ten (7.7 RPG) because he's a force on the defensive glass (21.4 DR%). And he's tied for the best distributor in the Big Ten (6.6 APG), owning the seventh-best assist rate in the nation (41.7). Valentine always is a triple-double threat.
With 5-foot-10 sophomore point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn doubtful to return from his plantar fasciitis on Saturday, Michigan State's starting guards should be 6-foot-3 senior Bryn Forbes and 6-foot-3 junior Eron Harris. Forbes is Michigan State's second-leading scorer (13.6 PPG) and the more efficient player (127.6). His efficiency is impressive because he's basically only a jump-shooter with less than 10 percent of his shots coming at the rim. But he's a deadly sniper, drilling 43.1 percent of his two-point jumpers and 48.2 percent of his threes, and doesn't turn the ball over often (11.9 TO%). Harris also is a good scorer for the Spartans (10.0 PPG), but he works harder to get there (25.3 usg%). He's more likely to attack the rim as over one-third of his shots are around the hoop, but he gets himself into trouble when he does. He converts less than half of his tries at the rim, and many of his turnovers (19.3 TO%) are a result of those drives. Harris is more effective when he puts up jumpers (44.2 pct. on twos and 39.7 pct. on threes).
In the front court, the Spartans will start 6-foot-10 freshman power forward Deyonta Davis and 6-foot-9 senior center Matt Costello. Davis was a heralded recruit in the 2015 class, ranking 26th overall per the 247Sports Composite, and has proven why this season. He's a dangerous scorer (8.0 PPG in 18.1 MPG) around the rim (63.6 2P%), a ferocious rebounder on both ends (13.4 OR%, 20.6 DR%), and the Big Ten's best rim protector (11.4 blk%). Costello puts up similar stats, but he plays with a more energized style that leads to some wacky celebrations in the heat of the moment. The main differences between he and Davis are that he's not as likely to step back and hit a mid-range jumper like Davis, he's the Big Ten's best rebounder (15.6 OR%, 25.2 DR%), he's not as much of a swatter (5.6 blk%), and he gets to the free-throw line with more frequency (41.7 FTR, 76.5 FT%).
Izzo could send in as many as eight reserves, though none of them average more than 4.3 PPG. Nonetheless, there are four that are likely to earn significant minutes. The first is 6-foot-4 junior guard Alvin Ellis, who'll either penetrate into the paint to draw a foul (43.2 FTR, 68.4 FT%) or fire a three (35.0 3P%). The second is 6-foot-5 freshman guard Matt McQuaid, who's a catch-and-shoot three-point sniper (42.2 pct.) that really struggles to score inside the arc (37.1 2P%). The third is 6-foot-6 freshman forward Kenny Goins, who has a minimal impact on offense (12.5 usg%) but can be a presence on the boards (11.2 OR%, 20.0 DR%) and as a rim protector (5.2 blk%). And the fourth is 6-foot-9 junior center Gavin Schilling, who's a great rebounder (10.4 OR%, 19.7 DR%) but not a polished scorer (48.6 2P%, 22.7 TO%).
Don't Let Indiana Beat You Twice: The manner in which Michigan lost to Indiana was stunning. After racing out to an early 11-point lead, the Wolverines were just manhandled the remainder of the first half, allowing the Hoosiers to close out the final nine minutes or so of the frame on a 25-0 run. The loss left the Wolverines asking questions about what went wrong, and it seemed like it could have shook them mentally. Michigan can't allow that game to impact how it approaches and performs in this game. What happened against Indiana is done, and Michigan needs to come out confident vs. Michigan State.
Zak Irvin vs. Deyonta Davis & Co.: Again, Irvin has one of the most important matchups of the game because he's an undersized 4. The 6-foot-6 Irvin will start out against the 6-foot-10 Davis as Michigan State opens with a two big lineup. This will really test Irvin on the defensive end because Davis is a great scorer in the paint and can crush the offensive glass -- most of MSU can do the latter, so all the Wolverines boxing out will be imperative. Irvin must keep Davis and the other forwards contained, while exploiting the mismatch on the other end. Irvin needs to draw Davis away from the rim and attack him effectively because Michigan can't afford another poor scoring performance from him.
Make Your Jumpers: This is as duh of a key as ever, but the odds are that Michigan's defense won't be able to slow down Michigan State's offense. The Wolverines' perimeter defense is a sieve and just permitted Indiana to blow by it for layup after layup. Michigan State could do that again or feed the ball to its bigs down low, but, if Michigan tries to sag off or help down, the problem is that Michigan State has shooters positioned all over the floor that can make U-M pay. Other than praying that Michigan State has an off-day, I'm not sure Michigan's shooting defense will do much. That leaves Michigan with its offense, which has struggled of late and will face the best shooting defense in the country. Much of that can be attributed to the Spartans' ability to protect the rim. Because Michigan is not a team that attacks the rim frequently, the Wolverines likely will settle for mid-range jumpers and threes. Michigan needs to be hot on those to win this.
This is not a good matchup for Michigan, particularly if Caris LeVert sits out again. The thought process was that Michigan would split this homestand, and beating Indiana was the best chance to do that. Michigan State's offense should be able to shred Michigan's defense with its incredible passing and outside shooting, while Michigan likely will be forced to put up difficult jumpers against a stingy defense. Usually, the Wolverines still would have a chance in a game like this because their outside shooting is lethal. However, they have not shot well in recent weeks as their offense becomes stagnant against long, athletic defenses. Unless MSU has a cold day, I'm not seeing a U-M win.
Michigan State 78, Michigan 69