(Note: The preview will be up on Saturday, along with a College Gameday thread. Our friend Zach Travis from Maize n Brew was kind enough to answer some questions about the Wolverines and Saturday's game. This exchange happened before Branden Dawson's injury, but it doesn't change much of the responses.My answers to his questions are here).
1. This team has lost three NBA players, and the offensive numbers are just as good as a year ago. How has Beilein been able to do this?
By maximizing the talent he has on hand. Michigan had a rough go of it earlier in the year while the offense tried to find ways to be effective without Trey Burke around to set up everyone else. The McGary injury seemed to hurt things even more as his knack for generating transition offense and creating/extending possessions was providing a valuable cushion that the Wolverines depended on when things gummed up in the half court offense.
Since that time Michigan has embraced its talent at the wings and directed a lot of the offense through those players.
Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert have been running a lot of pick and roll offense at the top of the key with Michigan's bigs, and both players have shown a lot of ability to hurt teams multiple ways. They can shoot when defenses play off and attack when defenses try to overextend themselves. The Morgan/Horford combo inside has excelled here by running the roll offense well and converting over 75% of their easy looks. This also allows Glenn Robinson III and freshman Zak Irvin to play more as scorers on the wings while freshman point guard Derrick Walton isn't tasked with too much. Everyone has a role in the offense and with so many weapons Michigan is just an adjustment or two away from taking advantage of any defense's game plan. Beilein has done a marvelous job adjusting this offense around the pieces he has at his disposal.
2. Defensively, it's still not a great team. What are the biggest weaknesses on this side?
Before the Iowa game I would have said transition defense, but Michigan did a good job there and mainly kept transition opportunities low for the Hawkeyes by virtue of playing so efficiently on the other end. Michigan is still susceptible to being beaten on the offensive glass and being overpowered at the four. If Adreian Payne can play he presents a big matchup problem at either the four or the five that MSU would be wise to exploit (more on this later).
Also, watching Michigan struggle against Penn State and Nebraska a couple weeks back, the Wolverines perimeter defense is able to be picked apart by guards that can get to the basket and use screens well. Michigan State has a few things on offense that it can use to attack Michigan. How well prepared Michigan is to deal with MSU (the game plan against Iowa was picture perfect) will be a big deal as Michigan can't afford to let the Spartans get off to a hot start in the Breslin Center.
3. Michigan is No. 307 in in tempo, but doesn't have trouble scoring. Is it to MSU's advantage to try to turn this into a track meet?
Yes and no. Michigan has issues with transition defense - although as I said before, it answered a few questions against Iowa - but the Wolverine offense is so good when it decides to run that Michigan State would be better served picking its best opportunities to run and not try and force anything. If Michigan State tries to push the pace too heavy and starts making mistakes, that is transition opportunities the other way for the Wolverines, and the team is so long and so full of capable shooters on the secondary break that even a team like Iowa ended up getting beaten in transition opportunities (Michigan had more fast break points and more points off turnovers).
Most importantly, Michigan has been exceptional about forcing teams to play at its pace. Iowa averages nearly 73 possessions per game and Michigan played the Hawkeyes to a 66 possession game. Michigan wants to win games of horse (all credit to Brian Cook of MGoBlog for that analogy). Its offense vs. its opponent's, trading shots. Michigan believes it can make more shots, and that has been the story since the Arizona game.
4. With McGary out, how has Michigan fared inside? They're terrible on the offensive glass, but still good on the defensive glass. Has Jordan Morgan stepped up as needed? Does it all come down to Michigan simply making shots?
Surprisingly well. I wrote about this earlier in the week, while the McGary injury took away some of the things Michigan was able to do outside of its offense (generate second chance points, create steals, ignite the fast break), Michigan's combo of Morgan and Horford are well suited to do what Michigan needs now.
The offense is actually reminiscent of the 2011 team with Darius Morris running the point, and Morgan - a redshirt freshman at the time - had a very nice season working in the pick and roll with Morris. As the offense has shifted to heavily favoring these high screens, Morgan and Horford have become the beneficiaries of a lot of really nice feeds for finishes around the rim. They are converting those at an absurdly high percentage and providing somewhere around 10+ rebounds per game combined. It isn't an area of strength for Michigan, and McGary was able to do some things that these two simply can't, but for the most part Michigan has gotten solid, efficient (both have offensive ratings higher than 120) play out of the duo, and given how well the wings are playing, it has been enough to keep Michigan winning games.
5. If Payne is able to play, but not 100 percent, do you think it would be advantageous for MSU to play two bigs and try to use a size advantage? Or would it be better to play small and combat Michigan's speed and ability to spread out the defense and use ball screens?
I think it could be advantageous, but I'm not sure who else Michigan State has in the front court that offers a serious matchup problem to further hurt Michigan. Part of the reason the Payne/Nix combo was so effective was that Nix was a load at the five and Payne a big-bodied stretch four. Michigan is by nature a smaller team with GRIII at the four and Michigan's bigs weren't quite big enough to effectively handle Nix. Michigan State could have its cake and eat it too by going to whichever player was feeling it or in a better position.
Payne is a big matchup problem at either spot. I don't want Morgan/Horford to have to deal with him if he is at the five because he can draw them away from the basket and mess with their rebounding while still providing a scoring threat, and I don't think GRIII or Zak Irvin can stand up to him inside if he draws them into the post as the four. If Matt Costello or Alex Guana are able to play Michigan to a draw at the five then it becomes an issue. If Michigan is able to go at each offensively on the pick and roll to the five, then Michigan will likely gain some of that advantage back. Payne will be a problem wherever he lines up. The question is whether MSU going big will be effective enough to gain back an advantage. I personally think the Spartans would be better suited keeping their best five on the court with Payne up front, Dawson (Ed: This was before the injury) and Valentine on the wings, and Harris and Appling at guard. At least that way MSU can match up Dawson on GRIII and then let Payne toy with Morgan/Horford.
6. Prediction and why?
I'll get this out of the way first: I think Michigan State is going to win this game. Part of this is the Tao of Big Ten on the road, and part of it is specifically how Michigan seems to play (or more aptly, not play) at the Breslin Center. The last two years Michigan has gotten run off the court in East Lansing despite coming in with arguably the best player on the floor. Michigan's offense is a bit more diverse this year and it seems to have hit its stride, but neither of the last two top-10 teams have been the kind of physical ones that can win a slugfest. Both mirrored Michigan in a lot of ways, and were susceptible to the Wolverines dictating the flow of the game. Michigan State is a team that imposes its style of play, so Michigan will have to react.
The hope is that Michigan State is thin enough up front that some of the rebounding/physicality advantage the Spartans have held in the past is gone, and that the game becomes more perimeter oriented, in which case Michigan could be well suited to hang with the Spartans and even pull the upset as long as the shots are falling. I am scared of MSU's back court, but Stauskas is playing like a full-fledged NBA prospect, LeVert is capable of doing a lot if he gets going, and GRIII has been much better this last month than the first two. This could certainly swing even farther in Michigan's favor if Payne isn't able to play, but I'd be shocked if Izzo doesn't play him in his last home game against Michigan. Without Payne, I'm not sure the Spartans have much of an advantage in the front court, if any.
I think this one is closer than the last two, but ultimately the Spartans will win the offensive rebounding battle, find ways to knock Michigan out of its comfort zone on offense and cause Michigan to have to weather a couple more dry stretches. If Michigan pulls the upset Saturday it will have to play a more complete game than it has the last two, which isn't very easy to do. If I had to guess I'd say Michigan State 67, Michigan 63.
Thanks again to Zach. Check out all things Michigan at Maize n Brew.