Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: 7:00 p.m., Thursday, March 4, 2021
PG Mike Smith (GR, 5-11, 185)
SG Eli Brooks (SR, 6-1, 185)
SF Franz Wagner (SO, 6-9, 220), Chaundee Brown (SR, 6-5, 215)
PF Isaiah Livers* (SR, 6-7, 230), Brandon Johns (JR, 6-8, 240)
C Hunter Dickinson (FR, 7-1, 255), Austin Davis (GR, 6-10, 250)
* suffered ankle injury March 2 vs Illinois
Last season, the Wolverines finished with a 19-12 record, with a 10-10 finish in conference play. In Juwan Howard’s rookie season as a head coach, he ended up in ninth place in the Big Ten. Michigan peaked in the AP Poll as the fourth best team in the country at one point, although the Wolverines went into the postseason unranked after dropping three of their last four Big Ten games against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Maryland. The Wolverines were ranked in the AP Poll for nine weeks during the 2019-20 season. Zavier Simpson would end up being placed on the All-Big Ten second-team. After the season, seniors Jon Teske and Simpson entered the NBA draft. Both went undrafted, but have gone on to sign with G League teams. Teske signed with the Lakeland Magic, and Simpson signed with the Oklahoma City Blue.
In Coach Howard’s second season at the head of the Wolverine bench, he has led them to an 18-2 record, and a 13-2 record in conference play. The Wolverines were ranked as the 25th best team in the country going into the preseason. After falling out of the AP Poll for two weeks, Michigan continued to rise. Michigan has spent six consecutive weeks in the top-five of the polls, peaking at No. 2 in the country. The Wolverines’ rotation is laden with veterans, as they have five seniors or grad students in their eight man rotation. They are led by the three-headed front court of Franz Wagner, Hunter Dickinson, and Isaiah Livers. To put it in perspective of how talented they are, all three have the potential to hear their names called in the NBA draft after their college careers end. When looking down the game logs, it is apparent that Michigan did not have a tough non-conference schedule, as Toledo was the toughest of their five non-conference opponents. Once the Wolverines made it into Big Ten play, they started to steamroll opponents, including a six-game and eight-game winning streak. Michigan has only lost to two opponents on the season, both of those being ranked respectively. As of March 3, the Wolverines are projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan did, however, show some vulnerability in the team’s last game against Illinois, as the Wolverines were beaten by 23 points, even while the Fighting Illini sat Ayo Dosunmu.
Hunter Dickinson is a matchup nightmare for Michigan State. The 255-pound big is a bruiser in the low post, and the Spartans do not have an answer for his size unless Xavier Tillman can catch a flight to Ann Arbor from Memphis. Dickinson has been one of the best freshmen in the country, posting the third-highest Box Plus/Minus amongst the 2020 freshman class, only behind USC’s Evan Mobley and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs. Dickinson was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and was ranked as the 43rd best player in the country. He has brought an old school back-to-the-basket game to the collegiate level. He is an elite finisher around the rim, putting down 74.8 percent of his shots in the restricted area. He uses this ability to be the leading scorer on the Michigan roster. On the defensive end of the floor, he is primarily a positional defender as he does not possess the athleticism to create turnovers and end plays. He uses his size to prevent post touches and has a good feel for the game though. This allows him to prempetly stop plays from happening. In order to be shut down, the Spartans need to be prepared to dig heavy and force him to pass in traffic.
Juwan Howard’s offense is inspired by the NBA offenses that he himself played in for so many years. Their offense is predicated on constant ball movement as well as spontaneous off-ball motion. Howard also has a massive playbook that he can go to whenever he deems necessary. Doing little things like setting flare screens on the weak side while a dribble hand-off (DHO) goes down on the ball side, is what makes this offense so deadly. Motion is encouraged, especially on the wings, where Isaiah Livers has free reign to move as he pleases. Ball screens set in recovery scenarios are great advantage creators for the Wolverines as grad transfer, Mike Smith, excels as a facilitator in these scenarios, looking for the pocket pass or kick back to the wing. Hoop Vision does a great job of diving deep into the offensive sets that Howard has, including Horns, Spain, and Pistol actions.
Juwan Howard has a legacy at Michigan. He was a member of the infamous Fab Five in the 1990’s. In his three years in Ann Arbor, he averaged 15.3 points per game and even had a third-team All-American appearance. After that, he went on to have a 19-year career in the NBA. Although most younger fans of the game know him for his time on the bench of the Miami Heat, he was once an NBA All-Star and was actually the first NBA player to sign a contract over $100 million. Howard took over the Michigan bench after John Beilein received an offer from the Cleveland Cavaliers. In two seasons, Coach Howard has a 37-14 record. As well as being a major X’s and O’s junkie, he has proven to be a great recruiter. As of now, he has the highest ranked 2021 recruiting class with two five-stars and three four-stars. The Michigan alum will look to bring a true competitor to the Big Ten year in and year out.
THE STATE OF STATE
Michigan State is hoping to end a tumultuous regular season on a high note and continue its current NCAA tournament streak of 22 consecutive appearances in the Big Dance. That streak is only outlasted currently by Kansas and Duke. As of March 3, the Spartans are in solid position to make the NCA Tournament, as ESPN projects the Spartans to be in the “Last Four In.” Michigan State has gone for a rollercoaster ride over its last five games, securing a wins against Indiana and then two upsets against top-five opponents in Illinois and Ohio State. The wind was let out of their sales in College Park, as the Spartans suffered a 20-point loss to the Maryland Terrapins, but proceeded to turn things around with another win against Indiana. Aaron Henry was an offensive focal point in the last five Big Ten games, as he has averaged 19.6 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting from the field during the recent stretch of games. He will look to continue his offensive output against Wagner and Livers. A win in one of the two Michigan games would all but secure an at-large bid for the Spartans into the Big Dance, so these matchups provide real value outside of an in-state rivalry.
The Spartans will capitalize on Livers possibly being out of the Michigan rotation and get the win in Ann Arbor. Michigan State is the scrappier and more desperate team at the moment, while Michigan has secured just about all it can in the regular season. The Spartans are fighting for their life on the bubble, and show it in a close win against the Wolverines.