It is what it is. Barring a miracle in Chicago, the Michigan Wolverines will not be dancing this postseason, a reality that has become clearer and clearer after every close loss. With just five regular season games left on the schedule, it is hard to see how anything changes at this point, but of those five, there is still at least one game worth fighting for.
The rivalry with the Michigan State Spartans has ramped up in toxicity in recent years, particularly at Michigan Stadium this fall. However, this is not the time for that given the tragic events staining the state this week. Instead, this is a game of emotion in its purest form, with both teams playing for pride amidst two differing circumstances.
The Spartans own the better resume and should have an NCAA Tournament berth this March, but the teams sit just a half-game apart in the Big Ten standings. Michigan has suffered plenty of struggles this year, but a rivalry win to split the series definitely means something.
Michigan State Spartans (16-9, 8-6) at Michigan Wolverines (14-12, 8-7)
Hilariously poor shooting droughts helped the Wolverines fall to both Indiana and Wisconsin, and things will not be any easier this weekend. State owns the best defensive numbers in conference play, and this is no surprise to anyone who remembers Michigan’s dreadful 0.79 PPP in East Lansing earlier this year.
While Kobe Bufkin is on his way to becoming a bona fide stud, the rest of his teammates have been struggling. Jett Howard is clearly going through some growing pains, particularly on midrange jumpers, and Dug McDaniel is at least a year away from being any sort of threat. Neither were very good during the first matchup, and Michigan will need at least one of them to play much better this time around.
The one constant against Michigan State is Hunter Dickinson, but what might be more interesting to watch is who starts next to him in the front court. With Terrance Williams still dealing with some issues, it opens the door for Tarris Reed to play in some two-big lineups. Reed brings much more value on both ends of the floor than Will Tschetter, or even a healthy Williams, and a pairing with Dickinson could be the difference maker against the smaller Spartans.
The bad with the good
The numbers on the Michigan defense remain decent, but it feels like every loss comes with seemingly avoidable breakdowns, whether that be leaving shooters open or failing to secure defensive rebounds. Combined with untimely scoring droughts, this team continues to fall short in games that could be won.
This was the case in East Lansing, as the Spartans were held to 0.88 PPP on poor shooting yet obviously still came out ahead. That effort was not an anomaly for an offense that sits below-average in the Big Ten and does not stand out in any way aside from good numbers behind the arc and at the free throw line.
The Wolverines absolutely need to win the battle inside and force some contested jumpers (as long as they can actually clean up the glass). This State team is not really intimidating offensively, and it feels like the only real risk is letting someone like Joey Hauser get consistent open looks. This is a game Michigan can win, and it really needs to find a way to do so, even if it gets ugly again.