Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI
When: 12:00 pm, February 8, 2020
TV/Radio: Fox/Spartan Sports Radio
Michigan 13-9 (4-7): #28 (Kenpom)
1 - Zavier Simpson (6’0” sr)
2 - Eli Brooks (6’1” jr), David DeJulius (6’1” so)
3 - Franz Wagner (6’9” fr), Isaiah Livers (6’7” sr)
4 - Brandon Johns (6’8” so)
5 - Jon Teske (7’1” sr), Austin Davis (6’10” sr)
Heading into the first match-up, UM was still looking like a dangerous team that seemed like it was just a healthy Isaiah Livers away from being back to being a conference and national threat. On paper they should be really good - they have three veterans who have won a lot of games, won big games, made big shots, and know what they are about; they have a couple of young and promising guards who can shoot, score, and create a bit, they have a couple of reserve bigs who have taken major steps forward, and they have a talented freshman wing-player.
On the court though (and off court too), things have begun to trend in a negative direction. Simpson has been up and down (still a very good player when he is finding ways to not shoot too much), Teske’s 3pt shot has really left him, Wagner’s 3pt shot hasn’t been there in the way he and many (myself included) thought it would be, Livers still hasn’t found his form or health, the two guards - Brooks and DeJulius - have gotten worn down (physically and in terms of their confidence) over the course of the grueling conference season, and Johns and Davis, despite their strong seasons, haven’t been good enough to pick up the slack.
Don’t get it twisted though, despite the simple offensive schemes (made less effective due to the poor 3pt shooting), and the less-imposing defense than they have fielded in recent seasons, this UM team is still solid: #34 and #35, respectively, in Ortg and Drtg. They guard the 3pt arc (#4 in opponent 3pt FGA rate), and they force teams to beat them one-on-one (#4 in opponent assist rate) - the main problem being that teams have done exactly this. Offensively, their abandonment of the offensive glass and their less-white-hot 3pt shooting has gummed up the works a bit, cutting down over-helping and leading to games where Simpson is just shooting way more than he should.
UM have lost their last 3 home games (odd), but will surely be fired up for this potentially season-changing game - UM still have enough games left on their schedule to get back into the NCAA-T given their strong non-conference results (wins over Creighton and Gonzaga will definitely help them if they are on the bubble), and Livers’ lengthy absence will probably be asterisked if he gets healthy down the stretch.
They will need to hit shots early and often, and if anyone hits from 3 expect a concerted effort to feed the given hot-hand. Even if he isn’t 100% Livers’ presence in this match-up will require a response from MSU, and it is likely that Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, and Malik Hall will need to keep him on lock-down.
UM does not force turnovers, so handing any to them (especially live-ball) would be a fairly disastrous move, and MSU has had recent turnover issues. These will be major indicators for the outcome of the game early on, along with MSU’s defensive rebounding (remember UM did a great job on the offensive glass in the first half of the first match-up).
The main match-up will still, of course, be Simpson vs Winston. Cassius owned the match-up last year, dominated the first match-up, and the MSU game-plans have worked really well vs UM of late. I will assume that Simpson will will his way to a better performance this time, but Cash has figured out this team so well at this point - I would be surprised if he didn’t win the match-up again.
In the front-court, Teske still needs to be addressed in the post - where he has been great all year. The MSU bigs cannot allow him to get deep position (he did, at will, in the first half of the first game). Where Tillman did not start out on Teske last game, I think he will this time around - Hall should be able to handle Johns, and Tillman is simply better at denying duck-ins and deep position than the younger MSU bigs; thwarting Teske early will go a long way to unsettling the UM game-plan.
Tillman was really solid against UM last year, and was great in the first game - whether he was defending Teske, Wagner, Livers, Johns, or whoever Howard threw at him. I would be surprised if Xavier had another bad-finishing game, as he always seems to get-up for this rivalry. Malik Hall should also have a big opportunity to match-up against Wagner and Johns, and I would love to see him start out ultra-aggressive on the glass and in transition - don’t let those two get comfortable by allowing easy rebounds or easy scoring opportunities.
Ultimately, though, and especially if the UM seniors raise their levels a bit, this game will be decided by Henry, Brown, Watts, and Loyer. These four have struggled of late, but doubled up DeJulius and Brooks in the first match-up, and should end up winning the game for MSU. Theoretically, Livers should tip the balance back in UM’s favor, but not being 100% will really create issues for him when dealing with Henry, Hall, and Brown athletically.
I would be surprised by another blow-out, but MSU does match-up well against UM, and Izzo and the fellas will be desperate to get another momentum-starting win against their bitterest rival and to add another nail to the coffin of UM’s season. Despite my vacillation between pessimism and optimism, and my current recent pessimism due to the disappointing performances by Henry, Brown, Watts, and, in general, all of the non-Cassius Winston guys on the MSU team, I kind of have a feeling that this game may be the start of something special. Cassius Winston, and the rest of this group, have taken a special relish in defeating UM over the last year-plus, and the UM games last year catalyzed the team’s transformation. A road win against their biggest rivals could do the same for this team, especially as the entire team emerges from a recent bout of illness.
This year’s MSU team is somewhat reminiscent of the 2010 team that struggled through portions of the season (including a 3 game losing streak late in conference season). That team had foundered somewhat in the non-con, struggled with on-court dynamics after an emotional Final Four run from the previous year, and didn’t get quite the boost from its young, returning wings that it had hoped for. Heck, that team lost its first game in the BTT. But that team had moxie and a swagger it carried all season under-the-surface because they knew they could do it, they knew what it meant and felt like to make a fully-focused run because they had done it the year before.
This team knows what it takes in that same sense, but they have struggled to find that knowing-cohesion and focus on the court. They reasons are evident to all, and it theoretically might never quite click, but this team is going to find how much they need to get back to that clicking, focused, driven feeling as this season winds towards its conclusion. And that realization of need and desperation has a way of sharpening focus and drawing excellence out of Izzo-led teams; and it can happen in an instant; it can happen in a single game.
This UM road-trip is the perfect opportunity to start such a sharpening of focus. UM has to win this game, MSU has to win this game, and this MSU team will find itself and find out how to tap into its desperate drive for greatness in that dingy, shitty arena in Ann Arbor today.
MSU 76 UM 68