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Heads Up, All In: MSU-Michigan Preview

CBS (coverage map, online video)
ONLINE RADIO FEED: Spartan Sports Network


When last we previewed a game against our friends from Ann Arbor, they had a tough time even imagining they could win the game.  The Wolverines had lost six straight games at that point and appeared to be headed toward the conference basement.

Well, as I'm sure you'll recall (if you don't recall it, I'll have what you're having), Michigan proceeded to knock off MSU, 61-57.  Michigan State got nothing out of its bench and very little out of non-Kalin Lucas starters, while the Michigan players, led by Zack Novak, knocked down 10 of 21 three-point attempts.

The Wolverines used that game to propel themselves back into middle of the conference pack and the NCAA Tournament discussion.  Michigan has now won 7 of its last 10 games.  One of the three losses in that timespan was by just 2 points on the road against Illinois; another loss came only after a shotput three-point bankshot by Wisconsin's Josh Gasser found the bottom of the net as time expired (the third loss was to Ohio State).  This team is competing at a pretty high level right now.

So what's driven Michigan's turnaround?  Our man Dylan has already provided a tidy summary.  Reason #1: Defense.


The Wolverine defense was shredded during the first seven Big Ten games, allowing a staggering 1.22 points per possession. In the last 10 games, Michigan has allowed just 1.03 points per trip. In case you are unfamiliar with efficiency margins, this is a radical improvement. Michigan’s worst defensive performance during the last 10 games, 1.14 points allowed per trip, is better than its best, 1.15 allowed per trip, during the first seven.

Michigan’s defensive improvement stems from significantly better field goal percentage defense. The Wolverines rarely block shots but are learning to be more crisp in their defensive rotations and contest shots more effectively. Michigan allowed its first seven Big Ten opponents an average effective field goal percentage over 60% but the next 10 have been held to an average eFG% under 50%. Just one of Michigan’s last 10 opponents have topped an effective field goal percentage of 54%.

On offense, meanwhile, Tim Hardaway, Jr. has emerged as a second offensive playmaker for John Beilein on the perimeter.  Hardaway has scored in double digits in each of the last 11 games, averaging 17.5 points/game on 36-72 three-point shooting over that stretch.  Dylan on this point:

While the overall offensive production hasn’t shifted much over conference play, one player has emerged as a star: Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has shifted from a streaky volume shooter to an efficient scorer. Suddenly he’s hitting threes, attacking the basket, dunking in transition, setting up teammates off the pick and roll and even hitting pull-up jumpers.

Needless to say, Michigan fans can feel a little more confident about their prospects this time around.

Looking at the overall conference numbers for Michigan (check the box), the team's offensive strengths lie in limiting turnovers (16.4%) and shooting the ball (51.7% on twos, 38.7% on threes).  Meanwhile, they rank dead last in both offensive rebounding  percentage and free throw rate.

On defense, despite the recent resurgence, Michigan is average at best in each of the four factor categories.  They've been particularly vulnerable to interior scoring, as opponents have converted 53.8% of two-point attempts, with no major shot-blocking presence on the interior for the Wolverines.

Keys to MSU winning the game that will surprise absolutely no one who's been paying even the slightest attention:

  • Limit turnovers.  Of course.  Both to increase scoring opportunities and to prevent Darius Morris from getting out in transition.
  • Crash the glass.  MSU has only reached the 40%-offensive rebounding mark once in the last ten games.  I think that almost certainly has to change to have a shot in this game.  Michigan is vulnerable inside, with the 6'5" Novak as the team's second most effective defensive rebounder.  The MSU big men--not to mention Summers--need to attack the glass hard and get some second-chance points to keep MSU in the game when Michigan goes on a run.
  • On a similar theme: get the ball inside.  The younger big men showed more flashes of their low-post scoring ability against Iowa.  Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne, and Garrick Sherman will need to make Jordan Morgan work inside, and Delvon Roe and Draymond Green will need to take advantage of the smaller and/or less experienced players Beilein has available at the 4-spot.  (Update: FWIW, Green didn't practice today, but would have played if there were a game.)
  • Win the three-point shooting battle.  Michigan shoots a lot of threes and they force a lot of threes.  Against Beilein's zone looks, MSU won't be able to eschew the jumpshot completely.  This is fairly scary territory for MSU, which has shot better than 30% from deep in only four of its last ten games (and one of those was a 2-5 performance).  Durrell Summers has made only 8 of his last 36 attempts, and Kalin Lucas--in spite of all his other heroics--has made only 5 of his last 23.  Those numbers have to pick up.  On the other end, the defenders assigned to guard Morris and Morgan will have to play them straight up so that other players don't have to sag off Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.  Hardaway, meanwhile, will represent a multi-faceted challenge for his defender.

(Yeah, three and a half bullets on the offense; half a bullet on the defense.  Of late, it's really boiled down to whether MSU can squeeze out enough points.)

It's been a long time since there was this much on the line for both teams in a Michigan-Michigan State basketball game (so long that I'm not going to try to figure out just how long).  The game is more of a must-win for Michigan than it is for MSU.  We can probably get into the tournament with a loss; they probably can't.  But, when you add the pain that getting swept by Michigan would cause to Tom Izzo and every Spartan below him in the basketball program and fan base hierarchy, the stakes really couldn't get much higher.  Izzo will pull out all the stops.  The question is whether there are enough stops left to be pulled out.

KenPom predicts a 64-61 Michigan win.  Objectively, I'd pick Michigan to win, perhaps by a few points more than that.  Michigan's got two scorers to match Lucas and Green now, and their supporting cast looks to be in a more predictable groove at the moment.  Here's hoping my sandbagging works as well as Dylan's did five weeks ago.

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