Leading up to Tuesday's huge game, Zach Travis from Maize N Brew was kind enough to answer some questions about the Wolverines for us. I' have answers to his questions here. (Side note: I know talking about Michigan tends to bring out the anger in most MSU folks. Zach is one of the good Michigan fans, so please be respectful).
1. Michigan looked like the top team in the nation (and was ranked as much), but has struggled the last three games. What's been the difference? Just better competition?
I would say the difference has mostly been the competition. Looking at the schedule before the season, this four game stretch stuck out as the hardest and most pivotal to Michigan's conference championship hopes. The away game at Indiana was as tough as advertised, as was the always frustrating trip to the Kohl Center. Sandwich those around a visit from Ohio State -- featuring Burke's nemesis, Aaron Craft -- and you have a situation where just going 2-2 over the four games is considered a positive.
Michigan is still the same team that can run most other teams off the court. Problem is, when it comes to games against other top-15 teams (and Wisconsin), you can't win by running those teams off the court. It takes a complete basketball game and a few lucky bounces. Right now in the country there are probably a half a dozen teams that could make a reasonable claim to being the best in the nation, and another half a dozen that aren't far off. Michigan is just like all those other teams in the former -- really good, but not invincible.
2. What's it like being a U-M hoops fan right now? A return to the glory days a bit, without the cheating. Some think this is a flash in the pan, but if you know Beilein and see the recruits coming in, that's clearly not the case.
I can't even begin to describe how good this feels. Michigan has been through so much in the past 15 years, and I've sat there and watched all of it with varying levels of interest and emotional attachment. After a while you lose so much that it seems preordained. You write off games and seasons early because "that's how it has always been." After the last couple years of steady growth, I still catch myself worrying. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. That becomes less and less every day as I see how good this team really is, the level of talent across the board, and all the positive signs for the future.
As the layers of worry and self-loathing wash away I'm simply left to enjoy this thing. I don't even find myself getting too worked up about losses. Simply watching Michigan basketball perform at a top-five level is so foreign to me (I was in elementary school when the Fab Five were around) that I end up enjoying the whole thing with the eyes of a child. This is basically all new to me. The feelings, the euphoria, and the thought that this team is actually good enough to make a deep tournament run. All of it is fresh and new and none of it is burdened by the weighted expectations that tend to kind of ruin some of the good feelings (i.e. Michigan football).
I can't speak for anyone else, but this might be the most fun I've had in my life as a Michigan fan in any sport -- football included.
3. One matchup people are going to look at in this is MSU's big men against U-M inside. Do you think this will be a smart strategy for MSU? Can U-M hang with MSU inside?
Most years this matchup concerns me more than it does this year. Michigan State is seemingly always strong in the post, and from the looks and sounds of things, Adreian Payne is having that kind of year for the Spartans right now (the kind everyone has been waiting for since he was a freshman), and Nix is continuing to provide a steady source of scoring and rebounding. Michigan State will work the ball inside and have success with it. However, three things give me hope that Michigan can hang with the Spartans down low.
First, the Wolverines have been rebounding at a much better rate this year than years past. The Wolverine defense is allowing a OR% of 28.3 in Big Ten play, which is second in the conference. In years past, Michigan State's control of the glass -- especially offensive -- has played a big role in these matchups. Michigan's bigs have been doing a better job rebounding than any team in Beilein's D-I history. If Michigan can keep the game even on the boards it will amplify the importance of the other factors of the game that Michigan is better suited to dominate (as well as help Michigan overcome an off shooting night or NEVER GETTING TO THE FREE THROW LINE EVER which I totally expect to happen because "Big Ten on the road").
Second, Michigan finally has something approaching depth at the five. Jordan Morgan is playing his way back into shape after an ankle injury put him on the sidelines for a couple games, Mitch McGary is doing Mitch McGary things (about which, more in a minute), and Jon Horford might be as good as both of them, but is still stuck at third in the rotation. The biggest concern depth wise is that Michigan really hasn't liked taking Glenn Robinson III off the floor -- which is great when he is giving you 12 points on six shots and pulling down eight boards and not so great when he disappears for a week and a half in early February.
Finally, back to Mitch McGary. All my Spartan friends have given me crap about McGary. Yeah, he is damn near old enough to drink despite being a freshman. He is also prone to stupid turnovers and ill-advised fouls. I can live with that. As GRIII has fallen by the wayside, McGary has stepped up huge for Michigan time and again. In the last three games he has scored in double digits -- something he had only done twice before, against two MI directional schools -- and he has shot better than 50 percent from the floor in each. He also has 21 rebounds (eight offensive), three assists, three blocks, nine steals in that stretch, compared to just six fouls and zero turnovers. McGary seems to finally be taking the positive steps forward that Michigan fans have been waiting for. He is still good for a bonehead play or two (he missed a critical fast break layup against Wisconsin that almost sent my fist through the wall), but he alternates that with so many great outlet passes, second chance points, and hustle plays that the benefits of having him in the game greatly outweigh the costs. This game will be a big test for McGary -- if anyone can scheme against him, it's Izzo -- but I think the young big ends up having another solid game, further neutralizing Michigan State's normal advantage in the post.
4. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III seem to have slowed down recently. Are they hitting a freshman wall? Can U-M win without much from them?
I think both are simply hitting the same stretch the rest of the team has. GRIII has matched up the last three games against Christian Watford, Deshaun Thomas, and one of Wisconsin's infuriating fours. Watford and Thomas are both upperclassmen with the NBA in their future. Wisconsin is a notoriously tough team to play against for a guy that generates most of his impact from second chance points and open kick-out threes. Robinson probably won't fare any better against Michigan State -- I can see him spending most of the night matched up against Payne when MSU goes big and Dawson in normal sets -- but for a freshman in this stretch of games, it is hard to rag on him too much.
Stauskas is in a similar boat. A lot of his offense is generated by Trey Burke opening things up for him to shoot or catch the defense off balance and drive. The last three defenses have all done a good job handling perimeter defense and forcing Burke out of his comfort zone a little without opening up lanes for the drive and kick. Stauskas isn't the kind of offensive player that can work out of isolation sets either. My biggest concern with Stauskas has been that he hasn't had as much success running the pick and roll as I would have liked to seen over the past few games -- although given the amount of attention other teams paid to stopping the pick and roll, albeit with Burke in mind, that isn't surprising.
In the long run I think both will be fine. Freshmen struggling in away games against some of the Big Ten's best teams isn't really cause for concern just yet. As long as both keep growing up as the season progresses, I have high hopes that they will be set up well to succeed once tournament time comes.
5. What are three keys to victory for U-M?
Michigan's offense is at its best when Trey Burke is able to get into the heart of the defense and draw help to open up other Wolverines. Michigan has struggled with that a bit over the last few games as the level of defense and athleticism has gone up. Michigan State presents another tough, physical defense that is going to try and take away Michigan's ability to get easy shots at the rim and force the Wolverines to win with outside jump shooting in a perimeter based offense. Michigan attempted just 19 free throws in the last three games. A big part of this has been Michigan not getting looks inside that can draw fouls. If Michigan can find a way to get Burke into the lane consistently, Michigan's offense should be very productive. For the record, I don't expect it to be nearly that easy, so...
The second key is that Michigan needs to continue to play offensively efficient basketball. Michigan is the best team in the nation at avoiding turnovers, and in games against strong defensive teams that becomes even more important. If Michigan can't get its bread and butter going on offense, it won't get as many quality shots. Therefore, turning possessions into shot attempts becomes even more important. Furthermore, Michigan doesn't force turnovers at a high rate, so winning this area of the game is often done by the offense protecting the ball.
Finally, Michigan has to keep things even when it comes to reboudning. The Wolverines have been good lately on the offensive glass (33.1 OR% in conference play, good for 4th) which has led to opportunities for second chance points that are even more important when once considers the level of defense that Michigan State plays. On the other end, Michigan State hasn't been great on the offensive boards (just 30.9 OR% in conference play), but the Spartans' size will be an additional test for Michigan's frontcourt players.
6. Do you consider MSU or Ohio State a bigger hoops rival right now? U-M and OSU have played each other four times since U-M and MSU last met. Gameday was there for last year's OSU game, and there were special jerseys and an in-depth ESPN The Mag piece about last week's meeting. Is OSU a bigger rival in hoops? Or is it just a matter of scheduling?
Rivalries in basketball still feel a little weird to me. I get that people hate Michigan because "it's Michigan" and all, but the Wolverines have been so bad at basketball for so long that most of the rivalry talk from everyone else for most of my life has been the dismissive "you've got to lose every once and a while for it to be a rivalry" type that burns way more than any other sports related retort I've ever heard. Myself, I consider Michigan State the biggest rival in hoops. I hate Ohio State as I am contractually obligated to do (seriously, they make you sign that as part of your welcome packet -- something the coaches probably didn't mention to Reon Dawson before his commitment last week (ba-dum-cha)), but in basketball my hate of Ohio State is framed more by how good the Buckeyes are at any given time. It is the same with my hate of Wisconsin/Indiana/Purdue/
Meanwhile, Michigan State's basketball dominance lines neatly up with Michigan's plunge into a pit of dispair and irrelevance; something Michigan State fans have quietly been reminding me about once every 15 seconds since the late 90s. The secret that Michigan fans don't let MSU fans in on is that all the hubris about Michigan State not being a rival in football is in a large part due to just how frustrating this last decade and a half has been on the hardwood. We can't spare any of our hate for the gridiron. So yes, for me it is Michigan State when it comes to basketball. It isn't even really close, either.
7. Give me a score prediction and why.
I really wish Brian and Ace at MGoBlog didn't lay claim to the whole "this is what Kenpom predicts" shtick because it is brilliant. I hate predicting games. Mostly because I'm as terrible at it as everyone other than Ken Pomeroy.
That being said, I can't imagine it being anything other than a wildly entertaining game that comes down to the final minutes (i.e. every Big Ten game this season). As I laid out in Michigan's keys for victory, I don't think Michigan's offense will have enough room in the middle to really open up any leads. Michigan can put together all sorts of 13-2, 15-3, 11-0 runs against lesser teams that leave the paint open. Michigan State won't, and that will limit Michigan's explosive power on offense to a few 7-0 runs.
However, just because Michigan will be forced to work from the outside a bit more (and all the effects that has on Michigan's eFG% which have been evident over the last three games) the rest of Michigan's offense is set up well for these close games. Michigan doesn't give the ball up much and it does a good job getting its own misses to create second shots off failed first attempts. Meanwhile, Michigan State is a good offensive team with a tough defense, and a pretty sizable homecourt advantage. I think Michigan is the better team this year. I'm not sure that matters much this game.
Ultimately, I think Michigan will squeak one out, although I'm not terrible confident in that prediction. The Indiana game saw Michigan fall behind huge (let's not do that again, mmkay guys?) before making it a game down the stretch. Ohio State played out of its mind in Ann Arbor and Michigan still escaped with the win. Finally, you'd have better luck applying what you learned from Michigan losing to Wisconsin to astrophysics than you would the game of basketball. Michigan is a great team that is almost on the other side of the hardest stretch of its season. I think Michigan finds a way to get the win and make it 2-2 in this stretch of games.
Thanks again to Zach for answering some questions.