What were supposed to be final tune-ups against Presbyterian and Massachusetts-Lowell before the new year quickly took a dark turn. Not because either of these teams knocked off the Wolverines, but because of the injury to Isaiah Livers, and the severity of it. Livers suffered the injury against Presbyterian roughly two weeks ago. With the junior forward sidelined, Coach Juwan Howard turned to sophomore Brandon Johns Jr. as his starting lineup replacement against Massachusetts-Lowell. The blow to Michigan’s best scoring wing threat leaves the Wolverines with 13.6 points per game to replace for as long as Livers is out. There is still no timetable on when his return will be, but it will not be Sunday against the Spartans.
This leaves the maize and blue in a tough spot headed into Sunday. Michigan State struggled early in the season, but is now playing their best basketball of the season, currently in the midst of a six game win streak, the most recent one being a 20-point home victory over Illinois. East Lansing is one of the tougher places to play within the conference and the Breslin Center will be rocking once again Sunday for a matchup that since 2011 has been extremely close, the Spartans holding a 10-9 lead in head-to-head matchups. In 2018, the Wolverines swept the Spartans, winning in East Lansing and at the conference tournament. However, the Spartans got the best of Michigan last year with three victories. Sunday’s matchup marks the first between the two squads of the Juwan Howard era.
What to Watch:
Contain Cassius Winston: The saying goes, “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.” That’s how good Cassius Winston is. The senior point guard from Detroit was named the Big Ten Player of the Year last season and was unanimously named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press this year, the only player to receive that honor. He’s not the fastest, strongest, or most athletic player, but he’s tough and understands the game at one of the highest levels. Michigan State is going to try to set him a lot of ball screens. Winston likes to go one way and then pick reverse direction and come off the same screen again to make the defense work. He can shoot, he can drive, and he can pass, making him a well-rounded guard. For Michigan, it will be important to force him to give the ball up. One option is for the Wolverines to double him off screens, which will typically result in him dumping the ball to his screener, who will often be Xavier Tillman. That then forces the 6’8 Tillman though to make a play 20-25 feet from the hoop. Unlike previous Spartan teams, this team doesn’t have deep and elite three-point shooters. Sophomore wing threats Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown are each shooting 34 percent from deep this year, a decrease from last season. I’m not saying give these guys wide open looks, but rather try to force the Spartans to take long contested jumpers as opposed to letting Winston or Tillman take layups.
Don’t Get Sped Up and Take Care of the Rock: A lot of the weight is going to fall upon Zavier Simpson in this game. Simpson is going to be responsible for defending Winston on one end while also facilitating and generating the Wolverines offense on the other end. It’s likely at some point in this game, Michigan State is going to go on a small run, whether it be early or late and the Breslin Center is going to be loud. It’s important as a veteran that Simpson can control the pace of the game, meaning he doesn’t play too fast and turn the ball over, but can also allow him teammates to get into rhythm within the flow of the offense. Michigan State will turn the ball over their fair share, something that Izzo teams have done in the past. The Wolverines cannot afford to give the ball right back in a hostile environment, especially with Livers on the shelf.
Get back on Defense: The Spartans love to run. If they get a defensive rebound, they’re going to outlet to Cassius Winston and he’s going to push the tempo with Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown filling the lanes. First off, someone has to stop the ball and not allow Winston to go coast-to-coast. Secondly, Eli Brooks and Franz Wagner have to sprint back to pick up their guys. The last thing you want to allow the Spartans to do is get transition layups and three pointers. Force the Spartans to run their sets. Make Cassius Winston give the ball up. Contest jump shots.
The Wolverines keep the game within striking distance the whole way, but in the end can’t make enough shots to win the game. Marcus Bingham Jr.’s length bothers Jon Teske more than I think people will realize and the Spartans win at home against a Livers-less Wolverines. 69-63 Spartans.
Date: Sunday, January 5, 2020
Location: Jack Breslin Student Events Center, East Lansing, Michigan
Time: 1:30 p.m. EST
Television/Streaming: CBS/CBS All-Access