If the Michigan men’s basketball team beats Michigan State on Thursday, it will clinch its first Big Ten regular-season title since 2014 and the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament next week. If the Spartans upset the Wolverines, they’ll likely clinch their 23rd straight NCAA Tournament berth.
And, of course, it’s Michigan-Michigan State.
Both teams come into their first meeting in over a calendar year with much to play for, but for vastly different reasons. The Wolverines will want to get the bad taste out of their mouths after an Ayo Dosunmu-less Illinois squad ran them off their home court. The Spartans will be hungry for another Top 10 win to go along with their upsets of the aforementioned Illini and Ohio State last week.
On paper, Michigan wins this game pretty handily. The Wolverines are given a 90 percent chance of beating the Spartans, a team ranked No. 60 in KenPom and with the Big Ten’s third-worst offense. But that alone won’t suffice for a preview, so I’ll spend the next few hundred words trying to figure out what Michigan State might be able to turn to against the No. 2 team in the country.
Finally The Man in his third season in East Lansing, Aaron Henry has fulfilled lofty expectations and blossomed into an All Big-Ten caliber player, one with the ability and will to drag his team to the Big Dance himself. Averaging 15.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, the 6-foot-6 swingman has taken his game to an even higher level recently and is averaging 18.6 points over his last 10 games. He’s not really known for his outside shooting, but he has a physical game and a unique, playmaking skill set.
It’s pretty much imperative that Henry goes off for Michigan State to have a chance. This isn’t to say the Spartans are exactly a one-person team, but Henry is their best player and it’s not particularly close.
Scoring-wise, Michigan State’s second, third and fourth-best players are Joshua Langford (10.1 ppg), Joey Hauser (10.0 ppg) and Gabe Brown (7.8 ppg). Langford’s future was in doubt after an injury-riddled last two years (he missed all of 2019-20), but the 6-foot-5 guard has put together a solid season, and gives the Spartans a tough-shot maker. Hauser, the team’s top rebounder averaging 6.0 per game, is a 6-foot-9 forward who can stretch the floor, hitting 35 percent on 92 3-point attempts. Brown, a 6-foot-8 junior, is an athletic wing and the Spartans’ best outside shooter at 45.8 percent.
On the perimeter, the Spartans have a couple of one-time Top 100 recruits turned wild cards. 6-foot-2 sophomore Rocket Watts (7.4 ppg, 2.8 APG) received All-Big Ten buzz before the season but has mostly disappointed, with his numbers all across the board down from last season and his offensive rating sitting at 87.6. Wins early in the season against Notre Dame, Duke and Detroit, in which he averaged 18.7 points and 4.0 assists per game, showed what Watts can do when he’s on, but he’s hit just three of 21 shots over MSU’s last three games. Hoggard has good size at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, but is shooting 31 percent from the field this year.
None of them are household names, but the Spartans have a deep selection of big men. Thomas Kithier (2.5 ppg on 65 percent shooting) and Mady Sissoko (1.9 RPG) are options, but neither are really in the rotation right now. Instead, MSU will probably rely on a combination of Julius Marble, Malik Hall and Marcus Bingham. Marble, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, averages 4.2 points per game and has an offensive rebounding rate of 10.3, which leads the team. The 6-foot-7 Hall (4.5 ppg, 4.2 RPG) is another strong rebounder. Bingham (3.3 ppg, 3.0 RPG), at 6-foot-11, was once known as a floor-stretching 5, but has mostly eliminated the three from his repertoire this year.
Your guess is as good as mine as to how Michigan State starts Thursday. 11 different Spartans have started a game this season. Henry and Langford are givens: both have started the last 11 for MSU. Marble’s started the last five. Hauser started the first 16 games of the season but has come off the bench in every game since. Hoggard or Watts have mostly traded off starts at point guard as of late, while you can expect either Brown or Hall to start at the 4.
The Spartans’ biggest strength on offense is the fact that they have Aaron Henry. Other than that, they’re 13th in Big Ten play in effective FG%, 13th in turnover rate, 13th in 2-point shooting and 11th in 3-point shooting. They’re a capable rebounding team (29.8 offensive rebounding rate) and get to the line at the fourth-highest rate in the league. The numbers say they move the ball quite well: they assist on nearly two-thirds of their baskets, which ranks second in the entire country.
On defense, Michigan State is capable of mucking things up a bit. The Spartans defend the 3-ball well, allowing opponents to shoot just 30 percent from there, and they block a fair amount of shots. That comes at a price, however: they can’t do so without fouling.
Opponents are taking 41 free throws for every 100 field goal attempts against MSU in Big Ten play, a figure which ranks dead last in the conference. Over their last seven games, the Spartans have committed 149 fouls. That’s a good sign for Michigan, which leads the league in free throw percentage at 77.1 percent. If this game is close late, the Wolverines should be able to take comfort in being in the bonus or double-bonus.
It’s always possible Henry goes for 30 and 10 and Brown, Hauser or Langford gets hot enough from three. And whatever inherent weirdness there is in this rivalry, Michigan State might be able to take advantage of. But the other areas which the Spartans seem capable of exploiting against Michigan are few and far between.