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Hoops Preview: Michigan

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Joe breaks down the Michigan State matchup against the plucky Wolverines

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Hate weekend is in full force. We have an MSU hockey upset win in Detroit, a little vitriol on Twitter, and more excuses and complaining than you can shake a stick at. To wit:

  • Michigan is without their two best players, Caris LeVert and (likely) Derrick Walton
  • Tom Izzo has been pretty quotable: I can only assume he was either talking about this or we need to #FireRexrode
  • Potential snow has been pre-blamed for either a late-arriving crowd or UM difficulty getting to the Breslin
  • There's been less Mitch McGary screwjob talk from UM than I expected. Perhaps that'll be rectified post-game.
  • Complaints from the MSU crowd that the shortened turnaround time after the Rutgers game was moved would hurt MSU's ability to prep
  • Lots of stats cherry-picking (we're guilty of this) with sliding timeframes for records and debate about whether or not the Fab Five era ever existed. You don't get to count those games, Michigan. You cheated.
I'm not sure anyone can be declared a winner in the complaining and #excuses lead-up, other than maybe Tom Izzo for his denouncement of all things Twitter.

So What's the Deal with Michigan? Why are they 2-1 since LeVert went out?

It's been two very solid defensive performances against Rutgers and Nebraska. The dirty secret is that even with LeVert, Michigan wasn't very good offensively. After an extraordinarily efficient offensive year in 2013-14, the offense has taken a giant leap backwards, from KenPom #1 to KenPom #139. But on the opposite side of the ball, Michigan has gone from KenPom #109 to KenPom #55. In the two wins they held Rutgers to just 0.88 PPP and Nebraska to 0.77 PPP.

To do this, Michigan has employed the gimmick John Beilein staple of zone defense, utilizing both the 2-3 and 1-3-1 flavors. Dylan Burkhardt of UMHoops did a phenomenal breakdown here. It appears that the use of man, 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone has varied based upon opponent.

Michigan's early defensive strategy will be interesting to watch. I think MSU did a good job of unlocking Eastern's aggressive 2-3 defense earlier in the year, especially with the ball flowing through Denzel Valentine at the free throw line. To me, the use of zone against MSU would be a mistake as those defenses typically allow for open looks at three-pointers and offensive rebounds, which are two areas in which MSU basketball excels.

However, Michigan hasn't given up a whole lot of offense rebounds and they've defended the three point line pretty well (though make your own conclusions about defensive 3P%). They've also played more possessions in man defense than zone (per that UM Hoops piece) and that's not a coincidence. I'll be happy if I see any version of UM zone for significant chunks of this game.

Have MSU's Defensive Woes Gone Away?

During the four game stretch before the game against Rutgers, MSU gave up uncharacteristically efficient performances to Northwestern, Maryland, Penn State, and Nebraska. As Izzo would put it, it was a strange bag of nuts. Northwestern and Maryland shot 48 and 52 percent from three, respectively. Against Penn State, D.J. Newbill hit a slew of high degree-of-difficulty shots to repeatedly tie the game. The really concerning performance was against Nebraska, where the Huskers shot 57.1 percent from two and many of those were on poorly contested drives to the rim. This stretch ended by holding Rutgers to just 51 points on 68 possessions, or 0.75 PPP.

As Heck pointed out:
But in conference play, Michigan has been significantly better than Rutgers, posting a 99.1 Offensive Efficiency (Rutgers slides in at 89.3).

I would assume that the intensity issues that cropped up during the Nebraska game would not be an issue, even against a team that isn't our true rival. Three-point percentage caveats aside, I think this should be a quality defensive performance for MSU.

With the Injuries for Michigan, Who Should MSU Be Concerned About?

Well...ahh...ummm... John Beilein? Zak Irvin is probably the most talented player left for Michigan, but he can't create for himself or for others. Spike Albrecht is a limited player offensively who can create but has a low usage rate (13%) that probably can't climb much, since his efficiency checks in at 102.8. Aubrey Dawkins is a freshman who has shot the ball well from three (42%) but also isn't a creator.

But Wasn't Michigan Pretty Good Against Wisconsin, Too?

This is a good point, interrogative strawman I have created. Michigan did post 1.1 PPP against Wisconsin, and did so while shooting a modest 35% from three and 47% from two. The trick in that game was that Michigan rebounded 34% of their misses while not shooting themselves in the foot in any other category. The flipside to this is that it's certainly possible to send three or four guys to the offensive glass when you play Wisconsin, because you know they're not looking to get out in transition. Still, Wisconsin rebounds the ball very well defensively.

Prediction?

There are a few paths for UM to use to get to a win in this game. They'll need to get some three-point luck, outrebound MSU (a rarity) or turn the game into a complete slog and hope MSU can't consistently score in the half-court. I think all three of these things would be major surprises.

As for the magnitude, I think the one meaningful timeframe statistic is the MSU-UM record with both Beilein and Tom Izzo at their respective helms. That stands at Izzo 7, Beilein 6. With Michigan's injury woes, it seems like a good year for a sweep of UM, which hasn't happened since 2009-10. A loss would mean an even record with a return trip to Ann Arbor still to come.

And that's not to mention that both teams have some tournament hopes at stake. MSU is currently sitting at a 10 seed, in 71 of 76 brackets that comprise the Bracket Matrix. Michigan is only in two, but a win would seriously improve their resume. It's a pretty high-leverage game in the rivalry and for the season.

The bottom line here is that MSU will have the three best players on the floor in Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson. The Izzone will be at full strength. I'm pretty confident.

MSU 70 - UM 57