It has been a weird few weeks since these teams last met.
Following a 75-52 beatdown of the Wolverines in East Lansing, MSU went to Nebraska for a close-but-not-that-close win, came home and blew a late lead against No. 1 Indiana and then blew a nine-point second-half at Ohio State. After the first matchup, MSU was in prime position for a Big Ten title run. It's a bit of a longshot now.
Since that night at Breslin, Michigan struggled in a home win against Penn State, trailed Illinois at halftime but finished strong for a home win and then somehow lost at winless Penn State despite a 15-point lead in the second half. After the first matchup, most figured the Wolverines would be on a three-game winning streak heading into Sunday. They are not.
So that brings us to Sunday's showdown in the former Soviet-era facilities that more resemble Dubai these days. While we've reflected on some of MSU's wins in Ann Arbor over the years, the Spartans have actually lost four of their last six trips to Crisler.
Both teams come in to this one licking wounds, yet it's still the second-ever top-10 matchup in this rivalry — the first coming three weeks ago.
What has been wrong with the Spartans? The defense has been so-so, and it starts with Keith Appling. For all his offensive struggles he's had over his career, I don't know if I can recall a worse two-game stretch for his defense. Now he goes up against Trey Burke. Will that be a spark for him to pick things up?
What's been wrong with the Wolverines? The defense has been dreadful. A Penn State team that struggles to score put up 71 in the first meeting and then 84 (1.22 PPP) in the home upset for its first Big Ten win, and that was with Jordan Morgan back.
Still, the Wolverines can be an elite offensive team. They're No. 2 in adjO, shooting 38.5 percent on 3s (No. 19) and 54.9 percent on 2s (No. 10). Though those 2pt shooting numbers are impressive, that comes when Trey Burke (18.8 pts, 6.9 ast) gets into the paint and either scores or dishes for a score. It's not dumping the ball in and posting up, like MSU does.
And that's why the pick-and-roll defense is the most important part of this game. MSU's generally been poor against the ball screens this season, especially in the last two games. But against Michigan, it was superb. Same with the previous meeting with U-M in East Lansing last season. So, in two of the three games against Trey Burke, Appling and MSU's big men have played the ball screen fantastic. The time they didn't do as well was in Ann Arbor last season — a loss.
The Wolverines remain No. 2 in the nation in holding onto the ball. For its part, MSU will have to avoid turnovers and transition opportunities for U-M, as it did in the first meeting. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.2 points, 3.3 rebounds) may always struggle at Breslin (2 pts, 1-for-11 shooting in first meeting), but he's generally reliable at home. MSU can't count on another terrible performance from him. The same goes for Nik Stauskas (11.8 pts, 46% from 3) and Glenn Robinson III (11.1 pts, 5.5 rebounds).
Perhaps the biggest problem with U-M's offense is that it doesn't get to the line very much (28.3 FTR, No. 332), but that happens with a jump-shooting team. When U-M is hitting shots, it's (still) one of the best teams in the nation. The Wolverines have been terrific at home the last two seasons because they usually hit them at home.
On the season, U-M's defense has fallen to No. 57 in the adjD, with opponents shooting 32.9 percent on 3s (No. 131) and 47.5 percent on 2s (No. 178). In conference play, those numbers are up to 34.5 percent (No. 9) and 48.7 percent (No. 10), respectively, so that's been a big issue.
MSU scored at 1.15 PPP in the first meeting, hitting from inside and outside. Derrick Nix was 6-for-9, Branden Dawson was 5-for-9 (before leaving after getting hit in the face. He hasn't been the same since), and Matt Costello was 3-for-3. John Beilein reportedly is considering a bigger lineup, probably something with Morgan and Mitch McGary. But that would really affect Michigan's offense, so I don't know how much of it to really expect.
MSU will again have to go inside to Nix and let him work. Maybe Morgan can hold his own, maybe Michigan changes its double-teams. Against Penn State, they tried to trap the ball-handler all night long on screens, but it never really worked.
I expect the same general matchups: Buke-Appling, Stauskas-Gary Harris, Hardaway-Dawson, Robinson-Payne and Morgan-Nix. I don't think Michigan can afford to do it any other way without sacrificing offense. Harris will need to take advantage of his matchup with Stauskas as he did the first time.
On the glass, Michigan is still a pretty good defensive rebounding team (27.3 percent, No. 21/29.2 percent in B1G, No. 4), but the last two games have been questionable. MSU grabbed 36 percent of its misses in the first meeting and will have to put up similar numbers again. On the offensive end, U-M is average, so giving up second chances would not be advised.
All in all, this Michigan team hasn't changed dramatically since my first preview. The defense simply has been a liability at times, while the offense is still very good. I expect Michigan to hit more shots and go on some runs, unlike the first meeting, since this is at home.
KenPom has this as a 69-65 win for Michigan, giving MSU a 34 percent chance of victory. An MSU win would keep them a game behind the Hoosiers after their loss at Minnesota.
I'm going with the same prediction I had last time: MSU by two points, and perhaps Appling makes some big plays down the stretch, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised by a U-M win.