1. What's the state of the fanbase and the team right now? Wednesday's loss at Penn State is one of the worst by a top team this season. The Wolverines no longer control their own destiny in the Big Ten, but a chance to finish undefeated at home and beat a rival will surely get them up for Sunday.
With 24-hours to cool off I'll still say "not optimistic", but that is an improvement from "suicidal".
Losing to a winnless-in-the-Big-Ten Penn State team can really screw with your world-view, man. This wasn't a game that Michigan was supposed to lose, and even my worry coming into the game was based entirely on it being too close in the end. I never really thought Michigan wouldn't be able to win. You just don't lose to Penn State.
Until you do. I couldn't watch the game because Jim Delany has yet to find a way to forcibly expand the Big Ten network into Southeastern Virginia (yet), but following on Twitter and the ESPN gamecast still colored in most of a pretty grim picture. Looking back on the game it seems pretty clear that while Michigan is a very good and capable offensive team, it is also a very flawed and vulnerable defensive team -- much more flawed than previously thought.
The last few games, Michigan's 2pt defense has been atrocious, and that puts too much pressure on an offense that doesn't always deal well with pressure.
So yeah, Michigan fans who were once yelling "FINAL FOUR WOOOO" are pretty somber. This is still a dangerous team, and I think it is the kind of team that is still good enough to get to the second weekend of the tournament. However, without a pretty impressive effort over the next week and a half and/or a Big Ten tourney run, most Michigan fans are slowly resigning themselves to enjoying a really good season and savoring the fact that Trey Burke is still in a Michigan jersey. There isn't anything wrong with that, but dialing expectations back is never fun.
2. What were your thoughts on these teams' first meeting? I think we can all agree MSU isn't 30 points better than U-M, no matter where the game is played. What were the biggest problems for the Wolverines in that one, and can they be fixed?
Immediately following the game I wasn't too worked up. Michigan had just finished a four-game, ten-day stretch that is quite possibly the toughest in the country, and after that overtime loss to Wisconsin it wasn't hard to imagine that Michigan was both physically and emotionally beat up. The MSU game snowballed early as Michigan missed a few shots and let Michigan State dictate things by allowing the Spartans into the lane at will. Then there were the Trey Burke frustration fouls and the subsequent run when he left the game. I mean, nobody died, but short of that it was pretty much the worst thing ever. Even so, there were plausible explanations for why things got so bad so fast (i.e. Michigan didn't have enough in the tank to make the run it needed to turn that game into an OSU-type game where the Wolverines battle back over the second half).
Now, I'm not so sure. Michigan has twice played high scoring games against a Penn State team that doesn't play high scoring games, and the Wolverines lost the second one after a total meltdown. Sure, there is the requisite beatdown of Illinois sandwiched in between, but if Michigan's defense struggles this much against Penn State, you have to think that those explanations from the first UM-MSU matchup might just be rationalizations from a delusional fan base that can't recognize its own defensive deficiencies.
To answer your question, I don't think Michigan State is 30 points better than Michigan, but I'm not sure the Spartans -- given the defensive and rebounding focus that the team is based around -- aren't 15-points better than Michigan, even in Crisler. Tell me how Michigan consistently scores against that defense if it continues to play the kind of high-intensity defense that it did the first time; the kind of defense that turned Michigan's offense into a flurry of perimeter passing, long twos, and Trey Burke doing ridiculous shit. Meanwhile, Michigan State is going to double down its commitment to scoring inside because Michigan still has no answer for Nix/Payne. And who do you put on Gary Harris? Not Nik Stauskas again, that's for sure.
3. Are you worried about the defense? The Wolverines haven't been terrible on that end, but they haven't been spectacular, and many have pointed to that as reason they can't go all the way in March. Even with Jordan Morgan back, is the defense becoming a major problem?
Penn State scored 1.22 ppp and finished the game on something like a 33-8 run. I'm pretty much worried about everything given that is the last bit of Michigan basketball I've witness, but yes, the defense is a particularly worrying thing. Everyone tried to explain it away early in the season when Michigan was winning, and it was relatively easy to do at the time because Michigan's offense was producing at a ridiculous level and given that kind of production you really don't need much defense. The Wolverines were basically daring other teams into shooting contests, playing position defense, not selling out for steals, and focusing on forcing iffy shots and collecting rebounds which could be redeemed easily for points at the other end by Trey Burke doing Burke-ian things. When the shots are falling this works just fine.
However, Michigan's offense is an outside-in unit that depends on getting its guards into the lane to collapse the defense and open up easy shots for everyone else. It is also a pick-and-roll heavy offense. As the level of defense goes up, so does the amount of perimeter pressure that other teams can bring, and that kind of perimeter pressure pushes Michigan's offense further and further out, closing opportunities for easy buckets that come from exploiting help defense. When this happens -- and it has against most of the good teams Michigan has played in the Big Ten to date -- Michigan's defensive problems become a huge hindrance. Michigan can't force turnovers which means it struggles to create transition opportunities that will alleviate some of the pressure from the half-court offense. Offensive possessions become 30-35 second slogs where Michigan tries in vain to get inside before settling for a contested 18-foot jumper. Meanwhile at home, I pour another glass of bourbon.
Michigan's defense can be effective against certain teams, but the worst characteristic of Michigan's defense in games against top-25 teams is that it doesn't do much to create transition opportunities for the offense when it needs it most.
4. What are three keys to victory for U-M on Sunday?
First, Michigan has to find a way to deal with the perimeter defense that Michigan State is going to throw its way. If Michigan spends 90 percent of its offense passing the ball around the outside and hoisting long twos, this game is going to end the same way the first matchup did.
Second, since the above is a dicey proposition, Michigan is going to need to find ways to create transition opportunities. That means forcing turnovers and forcing MSU guards and wings to take contested jump shots rather than get to the rim time after time. Gary Harris missing a few threes would be super.
Finally, Michigan has to come up with some answer for Nix/Payne. There is nothing more deflating than Michigan State bringing the ball up the court, going right inside to Nix, and having him score with ease on a post move while Michigan struggles on the other end to get a good, high percentage shot. Morgan has been playing better, but he is already limited athletically, so I'm skeptical of just how much of a difference he can make.
5. Give me a score prediction and why.
Michigan State scores in the low 70s. Michigan scores in the low 60s. I think MSU will take control of the game early and Michigan will make a few runs to pull the game within four or five, but I just don't know where Michigan can consistently get the defensive stops to make this a game if its offense isn't producing at something like a 1.3 ppp clip. Since that isn't happening against this defense, I expect a few runs that come up short, and for Michigan State to push the lead to double figures with free throws late.
Thanks again to Zach for answering some questions. Make sure you check out Maize N Brew for all things U-M.