Preview: Michigan State at Michigan

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It's the most pivotal game for the Big Ten title this season, as the Spartans hope to avenge their earlier loss to the Wolverines this year.

YOUR MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS at the MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

12:00 PM EASTERN, SUNDAY FEBRUARY 22ND, 2014

CRISLER ARENA, ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN

TV: CBS

RADIO: SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK

One month ago Michigan State played Michigan in a battle of Big Ten undefeateds, and the win was there for the Spartans' taking, even without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. MSU had a 6-point lead with under 12 minutes to play, which became a tie with four minutes left.  Then the misery happened. Nik Stauskas hit a three, Derrick Walton hit several free throws, and the MSU offense stagnated (I'll save you the misery of elaborating on it, but know that the words "missed layup" feature prominently). Michigan left with a five point win, and now we've come to this - a game that the Wolverines want very badly to maintain their Big Ten title hopes. However, given the schedules of the two teams, Michigan State desperately needs a win to have margin for error for any hope of at least a share of the Big Ten title.

Since their unfortunate win in East Lansing in late January, the Wolverines have been stuck in a similar alternating win-loss pattern to the Spartans. They've beaten Purdue, Nebraska, and won at Ohio State in that stretch, but they've followed up each of those wins with losses at Indiana, at Iowa, and at home against Wisconsin. Granted, UM fans might point to anomalies in each of those losses: the Wolverines only shot 23% from three (3-13, a significantly below-average number of three attempts for a Beilein team) at Indiana, Iowa made near 59% of their threes (10-17) in their win, and Wisconsin only had two turnovers (two! 2! DEUX!) in their road upset of the Maize (it's still maize under Adidas, isn't it?) and Blue.

Granted, it's college basketball, and anomalies happen throughout the year. Yes, MSU only had five turnovers when they lost against Michigan earlier this year, but the Wolverines also shot 57.9% from three to get that victory over the Spartans. As I'm sure the Green and White will turn it over more than three times on Sunday, I'm also sure (right?) Michigan won't shoot 58% from behind the arc again. So what can MSU do to get a one-game lead in the Big Ten tomorrow? It's time for the keys to the game:

  • Nullify Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford on the boards. Michigan only has two rebounders that retrieve more than 15% of the opponent's misses - Horford, who's great at it (25.5%), but only averages ~14 minutes a game, and Jordan Morgan. Morgan doesn't collect defensive rebounds at the rate of Horford (17.5%, but still good for 411th in Division 1), but Morgan is currently tied with Nebraska's Leslie Morgan as the Big Ten's top offensive rebounder (both collect 13.5% of their team's misses).  Morgan had four offensive rebounds in UM's win last month, hopefully Payne and Matt Costello can put a dent in that.
  • Hope for a regression to the mean. Like I said, I doubt Michigan makes ~58% of their threes again. However, if State's defense has been as lenient as it's been in past games (teams have scored more than a point per possession in seven of MSU's past eight games), anything 50%+ is a definite possibility. The Wolverines have three players shooting 40% from three (Caris Levert, Stauskas, and Zak Irvin) with a fourth almost there (Derrick Walton, 39.4%). Levert, Stauskas and Walton can't have games like they did a month ago, can they?
  • Play smart. I suspect that when a lot of people say a team should "play tougher", they actually mean "play smarter" - help on defense. Box out while rebounding. Don't settle for contested jump shots, especially just within the two point line. I know there was some debate about whether MSU should've taken the number of threes that they did against Purdue, but if the perimeter is being left open, by all means. Just like teams sometimes have to pass to open up the run in football, sometimes teams need to make threes to open up the lane.
Even though the Spartans have a game in hand, their road to a Big Ten title is much rougher than Michigan's. While the Wolverines' two toughest games left are most likely Minnesota and at Illinois, the Spartans' two toughest are at home against Iowa and in Columbus against Ohio State. The only dimension this game isn't must-win for MSU is mathematically -- if the Spartans lose this, it's hard to see how they get even a share of the Big Ten regular season title. Here's to 40 minutes of focus and accuracy in less than 24 hours.
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