The Michigan Wolverines avoided near disaster against Northwestern on Wednesday, choking away the lead and almost losing at the buzzer. There are plenty of growing opportunities from that surprisingly close contest — though subpar refereeing certainly did not help — but the most important thing is Michigan has now won three straight and is on the upswing.
The same cannot be said for Saturday’s opponent. Since the postponement on January 7, the Wolverines have won three of four and might have pulled off an upset in Champaign with an actual roster. Meanwhile, Michigan State has gone just 2-2, losing to both Northwestern and Illinois squads who were missing their best player.
On paper, this matchup still favors the Spartans, especially in East Lansing; State has won the last three at the Breslin Center and five of the past six, though that lone Michigan win was an unranked Wolverines taking down a top-10 home team, as will be the case this weekend. The teams are trending different directions and anything goes in a rivalry game, so the opportunity is there for Michigan to really make a statement.
Michigan Wolverines (10-7, 4-3) vs. No. 10 Michigan State Spartans (15-4, 6-2)
The Wolverines continued their shooting rampage, going 8-for-12 from deep against the Wildcats. Caleb Houstan is feeling it now, and his 3-for-5 effort bumps his eFG to 63.3 percent and three-point accuracy to 43.6 percent in Big Ten play, third- and sixth-best in the entire conference, respectively. This does not excuse his past slumps, but he is starting t finally exhibit some of his extremely high ceiling.
State will not make it easy for the five-star freshman, or anyone else in maize and blue. The Spartans offer the best in-conference defense and held both the Wildcats and Illini to under 1.00 PPP those two recent losses. This starts with Marcus Bingham and Malik Hall, who will make it tough near the hoop, so this looks like an intense strength-on-strength battle.
The other end of the floor will be interesting as well. Michigan is still struggling with the fundamentals, leaving shooters open and allowing too many offensive rebounds and loose ball recoveries, including in the final minutes against Northwestern. This seems to be a communication and chemistry issue, but at some point it would be expected to improve, and it really has not.
Like against Indiana, there is a big opportunity in the turnover department, as no team has been sloppier in conference games than State. The Wolverines do not usually capitalize too much in this area, but in a game that may come down to the wire, stealing a few extra possessions (and potentially turning them into open looks in transition) may end up the difference.
Big players show up in the biggest games, and Michigan will need Hunter Dickinson to do just that this weekend. Foul trouble caused him to have his worst outing in quite some time against Northwestern, but maybe the rest could be a small perk. The big man was 6-of-8 against the Spartans in the Big Ten title-clinching win last season, and he should have a fun matchup against Bingham under the basket.
State has talent all over the place on offense and the key will be not letting things get out of control, especially in a raucous environment that will explode with any scoring run. The defensive discipline of Dickinson and Moussa Diabate is crucial, but the wings will really need to bring their best effort against Max Christie, Gabe Brown, and Joey Hauser. The Spartans are very balanced with multiple scoring options, meaning all five defenders must be in sync every possession.