Going into Sunday afternoon’s regular-season finale against Michigan State, the Michigan men’s basketball team has already done just about everything it had set out to do before the postseason began.
The goal for the Wolverines now, more than actually going out and doing anything, is to hold serve. Preserve their projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, keep their key players in shape for it, hold on to the rivalry bragging rights they earned Thursday night with a 69-50 win over the Spartans in Ann Arbor.
But as far as concrete goals go, Sunday is all about Michigan State.
The Spartans are currently the second-to-last team in the field of 68, per Bracket Matrix. That’s not an easy place to be with one game left in the regular season, and no matter what happens Sunday, they’ll have some work to do in the Big Ten Tournament to feel comfortable about their chances.
But an upset of Michigan would give them three wins over Top-10 teams in the NET, and in Indianapolis, they’re lined up to play a probable tournament team — either Maryland or Rutgers — in the first round. They’ll have an argument, certainly, and that’s as good as it gets for most teams as bubbly as Michigan State.
The Wolverines, though, would probably like to do nothing more than deny them that argument.
For a breakdown of the Spartans as a team, click here. For a few things to watch out for on Sunday, keep reading below.
What does Michigan need to do on defense? Exactly what it did Thursday. The Wolverines held MSU star Aaron Henry to 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting and four turnovers. That’s a good place to start. The Spartans aren’t built to survive an average night from Henry against the No. 2 team in the country. And Henry isn’t built to withstand the wingspan of the 6-foot-9 Franz Wagner. Few are.
In addition, Michigan held MSU to 0-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. Even the worst shooting teams have those nights where everything seems to fall, and the Wolverines barely gave the Spartans — 13th in the Big Ten in outside shooting — a chance to do just that.
Joshua Langford’s 2-of-10 shooting night Thursday is an area for potential improvement for MSU. But the Spartans would also be well-served getting Gabe Brown more involved: in 27 minutes, the 6-foot-8 wing scored just two points on two shots. By offensive rating, Brown is MSU’s most efficient player, and he’s their best outside shooter by a mile.
What does Michigan need to do on offense? Pretty much exactly what it did Thursday, if not a little bit more. The Wolverines shot 53 percent from inside the arc and 44 percent from beyond it.
They turned the ball over 14 times, however, six of them committed by Hunter Dickinson. If Michigan has any hint of a weakness on offense, it’s in taking care of the ball — they’re just ninth in Big Ten play in turnover rate — but even then, Thursday was Michigan’s worst such game since it restarted last month. The Wolverines had been averaging just 8.9 giveaways per game in that span.
Getting Chaundee Brown going is an X-factor of sorts. Michigan’s sixth man has scored just six points over his last three games, going 1-for-7 from deep. At this point, it’s just a quiet stretch, but Brown’s catch-and-shoot ability — he’s shooting 39.1 percent from deep this year — adds another dimension to the Wolverines.
Wagner, once again, proved Michigan is at its best when he’s at his most aggressive. He looked for his shot inside and outside the arc Thursday, finishing with 19 points and four 3-pointers. Since the pause ended, he’s averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 52 percent from deep.
If Dickinson stays in the game, the Spartans’ hopes of winning decrease dramatically. Dickinson’s seven quick points inside after returning from foul trouble were a pivotal moment in the first half, and in just 24 minutes, he scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds. He had plenty in the tank against undersized MSU bigs Malik Hall, Julius Marble and Thomas Kithier.