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Back to Work - Michigan Preview

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2011 - 7:00 PM EST
ESPN (Bob Wischusen (Play by Play), Stephen Bardo (Color))
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network

We've had quite a bit of previewage for this game already and, what with the other demands on Spartan fans' attention lately, I'll try and keep this brief.

For a more in-depth look at this match-up I strongly recommend the exchanges between KJ and Dylan of UMHoops (here and here) and between Pete and Remember Bo of Maize 'n Brew (here). Basically what we have is one team that came into the season with low expectations, saw them raised by a promising pre-conference season only to see them come crashing back to Earth; and another team that started with the highest expectations, expectations that have been in free-fall since they started actually playing the games.

Michigan and Michigan State face each other Thursday night with each team on a losing skid. Michigan started the season 10-2, including a very respectable 3-point loss to Syracuse and a thrashing of Oakland, two teams that gave the Spartans a lot more problems than that. The Big Ten season poured a bucket of ice water on the optimism this generated, however, and the Wolverines have started the conference season 1-6, with losses in their last 5 straight (6 overall as they played Kansas tough in an OT loss in the middle of that). MSU, meanwhile, are losers of two straight tough road games, the last being a scorching at the hands of a hot-shooting Purdue team. So each team would dearly like to get its season back on track with a win over the hated in-state rival. You'd have to think the desperation index is a little higher for the Spartans, however, who are still looking to lock up a tournament spot, and maintain more distant hopes of a Big Ten title, in the midst of the controversy swirling around the dismissal of Korie Lucious.

When Michigan State Has the Ball

I'll reverse the normal order here so that I can begin with what is probably the key feature of the game. Consider the following chart:

Michigan Def. Eff. Graph

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what has happened to Michigan this year. A defense which was surprisingly good early in the non-conference got steadily worse, recovered for a couple of games and then fell off a cliff in conference games, to the point where they stand last in conference-only defensive efficiency. The explanation for this is hard to find, but two things stand out: they're last in the conference in defensive effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and they're also fouling like crazy (10th in conference in opponents' free throw rate (FTR)). When you combine this with not forcing many turnovers, they're giving opponents a lot of chances to score and not making it difficult to cash in on them.

John Beilein deploys a variety of defensive schemes you can blame this on. They play a lot of man-to-man but I would be very surprised if they didn't show at least some zone, either 1-3-1, 2-3 or both, given the way the Spartans have struggled against Syracuse, Northwestern and even Bowling Green, especially in the turnover department. With MSU being thin at point guard and likely to be using Keith Appling, Mike Kebler and even Draymond Green to help run the offense, I would expect Michigan to try to change things up from time to time to create disorganization and confusion.

That, I think will be the key. If Michigan State can maintain their poise and not commit unforced turnovers, they should be in good shape in this game. Michigan has not done well stopping people either inside or outside, so I think it's a matter of finding the path of least resistance and taking it. It might be a continuation of the high-low game Green and Roe showed against Purdue, especially if they can get Jordan Morgan, UM's only real post presence, in foul trouble. Or it might be just hitting the open threes they're likely to get. There should be a lot of options.

When Michigan Has the Ball

This may be the area that makes me more uneasy. Michigan shoots a LOT of threes. And they're actually shooting them better now than they did in the pre-conference. After back-to-back games of seeing the other guys shoot the lights out, many of us, I'm sure, are a bit apprehensive about one or more of Michigan's gunners getting hot. Someone like freshman Evan Smotrycz, who is 6'9" but shoots 37.5% from beyond the arc could give MSU a lot of problems. Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Matt Vogrich are all over 35% as well.

Although a number of Wolverine watchers, including Remember Bo in his Q & A with Pete, are frustrated with the volume of threes, and would like to see guards Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. be more aggressive inside the arc, the long bomb does seem like their most likely road to success. The Spartans currently stand at number 242 in the country in 3-point defense but number 28 against the 2, including a lot of shot blocks. MSU probably has the size and athleticism to shut down Michigan if they take it inside. If the Wolverines are also cold from outside, as they were in the last meeting at the Breslin (4 of 21), it could be a long game for them.

I'm too lazy to try and look up that statistic you're all familiar with. You know, the one about how many days it's been since the Spartans last dropped a revenue sport game to our rivals in Ann Arbor. I'm sure somebody will supply the number in the comments. Pomeroy's prognostications have it as a 67-58 MSU win. Suffice it to say, there's a pretty good chance that number, whatever it is, gets extended a bit further. GO GREEN!