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BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Michigan

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The Spartans look to end their three-game skid against arch rival Michigan

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll start here.

Numba one! Numba one! Still gold. Thanks, “Air Georgia” that is thoroughly good material. To this year’s edition...


The Basics

NCAA Basketball: Maryland - E. Shore at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

  • Record: 14-7 (4-4 Conference / 0-5 Road)
  • Best Win: vs SMU* (RPI: 29), 76-54
  • Worst Loss: @ Iowa (RPI: 113), 83-86

Last Five Games

  • 1/26 — vs Indiana, W 90-60
  • 1/21 — vs Illinois, W 66-57
  • 1/17 — @ #17 Wisconsin, L 64-68
  • 1/14 — vs Nebraska, W 91-85
  • 1/11 — @ Illinois, W 69-85

These bitter rivals each enter this game at 4-4 in conference, but are trending in opposite directions of late.

MSU started out 4-1 but have scuffled since and are looking to break a three-game slump. Michigan, however, is on a mini-two game winning streak, the latest of which came courtesy of an almost irresponsibly good shooting performance in a 90-60 home rout Indiana. The Wolverines hit an absurd 63.3% from the field, including 55.0% from three, Wednesday, showing that, like most John Beilein coached teams, when they are on they’re capable of lighting opponents up from beyond the arc.

This isn’t the first time they’ve gone bananas offensively, either. They’ve scored 90-plus on four separate occasions and rank 30th in the nation in three-point percentage at 38.8%. However, as their record shows, they are prone to equally bad shooting nights and when those happen, they lose. Their game against then-second-ranked UCLA is a perfect encapsulation of their season to this point.

Michigan went toe-to-toe with the Bruins in one of the most fun halves of basketball you’ll see this season, draining three’s and getting to the rack, eventually heading to the locker room tied, 50-50.

The second half, not so much. Unlike Lonzo Ball’s shots, Michigan’s stopped dropping and they ended up losing by 18. Yes, UCLA is one of the best teams in the nation and there is no shame losing to them, but it goes to show how up and down Michigan can be, even from half to half.

For more proof, just look at the Wolverines Big Ten slate. For every high peak (beating IU by 30) there’s a low valley (losing at Illinois by 16). The big question to answer Sunday is will their latest peak set them up for another fall or finally propel them to some measure of consistency?

Wolvies To Know

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The two holdovers from the Final Four teams of a few years back, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton, pace the team in scoring.

Irving is the lead dog on offense, somewhat by default. I won’t claim to be a huge student of his career, but he doesn’t strike me as a guy whose role has increased because his game has gotten more diverse, but because the team around him just isn’t as talented. The stats pretty much back it up.

He’s having his best season of his career but not by leaps and bounds. His percentages are improved and he’s getting to the bucket more efficiently than ever before. It’s not remarkably better than his breakout Sophomore year but, to Irvin’s credit, he didn’t let a terrible junior season set the tone for his final run in Ann Arbor.

He LOVES to launch — he’s taken 76 more shots than the next closest player (Walton) — but only hits 34.9% of his shots from deep, which actually make his strong 45.6% field goal percentage even more impressive. Walton on the other hand has become almost entirely a three-point shooter. 114 of his 183 shots have been from deep and he’s hitting them at a 42.1% clip. Don’t expect to see a lot of Cassius Winston guarding him.

The seniors may get the most buckets, but this group isn’t as guard heavy as those great teams. Arguably the two best all-around players on the team, DJ Wilson and Moritz Wagner, stand 6’10” and 6’11”, respectively. Both were minimal contributors a year ago, but have burst onto the scene with an increase in playing time. Neither of them are “classic” bigs, but more like guards in big bodies. They’re the top two three point shooters on the team percentage-wise and combine for almost 33 points per game.

It’s a talented group that will provide new tests for a Michigan State team that is on the ropes.

How Does MSU Match Up

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that Michigan State is short. You also may have heard they can’t defend the three-point line. Finally, you may have heard that’s a terrible combination. All of these are true, unfortunately, which makes Michigan a horrible match up on paper, but let’s look at where they actually rank nationally in a few areas...

  • #236 in blocks per game (2.9)
  • #317 in field goal percentage defense (47.1%)
  • #325 in offensive rebounds per game (8.05)
  • #342 in rebounds per game (29.71) ahead of American University, Idaho St., Liberty, Fordham, and Holy Cross.
  • #346 in three-point field goal defense (42.3%) — MSU is #236 at (35.8%) — ahead of only Pepperdine.

There is a lot to dissect here but one overarching theme is that even though this is a taller team, they don’t play like it.

They don’t use their size on the glass at all, which means they HAVE to be shooting well to win, because they don’t create second chances for themselves and give up a lot of them on the other end.

Even with the added length teams can get into the paint and score with relative ease because they don’t block shots — Nick Ward and Miles Bridges average almost an entire block per game more than the entire team — or play tough interior defense.

The most staggering stat is the last one, three-point field goal percentage. I did not think there was ANY way MSU wasn’t dead last in this category but, as usual, I was mistaken. Michigan’s opponents are torching them from the outside.

Despite the height disadvantage, Michigan State will have the chance to exploit these glaring problem areas. Ward and Bridges — even Kenny Goins — should be able to compete on the glass and get MSU some easier buckets and the wings should be able to at least get looks from outside.

This game will come down to two things — who can defend the three-point line and who wins the Wagner/Wilson v Ward matchup?

If these two teams get into a distance shooting competition, it’s a huge advantage for Michigan. Four of their top five scorers shoot at least 41% from deep and two others, Irvin and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, shoot (basically) above 35%. MSU has guys who can make shots but are as streaky as it gets.

The matchup of bigs will be very interesting. Because of their shooting ability, Wilson and Wagner should be able to get Ward away from the basket where he simply isn’t comfortable defending. If one of them goes on a shooting spree it could spell trouble.

Offensively, MSU needs two things to happen — get offensive rebounds and have someone besides Miles Bridges step up as a second wing scorer. O-boards are a trademark of Izzo’s program but this team has struggled due to a lack of size. However, UM is so bad in that area, there should be more opportunities than normal. Secondly, someone — ANYONE — needs to score from the wing.

I think it’s time to take the training wheels off Josh Langford. He’s the best all-around talent of any wing player, the team’s leading three-point shooter and can help out a lot on the glass with his leaping ability. MSU is going to get a lot of looks from deep and chances on the offensive boards. Letting Langford loose almost makes too much sense.

Prediction

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

If Michigan State was fully heathy, I would have no trouble picking them to win this game by 15-20. Michigan plays zero defense and the chances of them scorching the nets like they did against Indiana for a second straight game are slim and if they don’t do that, they don’t win. Actually, they just don’t win on the road period.

They’re 0-5 so far and have lost those games by an average of 11.2 points. Home cooking and hot shooting have carried Michigan to this point. One of those factors will definitely not be present Sunday in East Lansing and the other would be tough to replicate after their last outing.

At 12-9, the Spartans’ backs are starting to get very close to the wall. They NEED this game, not only for the win but to get some of the mojo that they had going before losing to Penn State back.

The size is a mismatch swaying towards Michigan, but the style brings the pendulum right back. Add in home court advantage and Tom Izzo and I’ll take Michigan State in this one.

MSU 79 UM 71