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Michigan State Men’s Basketball Preview: Michigan Wolverines

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Tom Izzo and the Spartans look to bounce back after the loss at Illinois by dominating their most bitter rival at the Breslin Center.

Northwestern v Michigan
Moussa Diabate seems to be a little excited about facing the Spartans.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

After a disappointing road loss against an undermanned Illinois squad on Tuesday, the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans return home to East Lansing to take on the program’s most bitter rival, the University of Michigan Wolverines.

Game Information

When: Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, 12:30 p.m. ET

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan

TV: CBS

The state of the Michigan program

When John Beilein left the Michigan program somewhat surprisingly for the NBA in 2019, he was looking back at a few years that could easily be described as some of the best the Wolverines have ever seen on the hardwood floor. He had won 89 games over a span of three years and reached a national final game sandwiched in between two Sweet Sixteen appearances. His successor, Juwan Howard, though — who as a former member of the Fab Five returned to Ann Arbor with plenty of fanfare — has struggled a bit to maintain that level.

Howard has done a nice job of keeping the excitement around the basketball program going, securing plenty of high-level recruits and earning some high poll rankings along the way. He also reached a regional final last year, which the Wolverines lost narrowly to UCLA in the Elite Eight round. But the year before that and this season, Howard and the Wolverines have fallen plenty short of the lofty expectations. Even if it’s still early for Howard and this year’s struggles can partly be traced back to a serious COVID outbreak, it’s safe to say that his tenure has had its moments, yet also shows signs of being a mixed bag. Nonetheless, the UM program still looks to be in decent shape going forward as they can bank on good results from recent years and are getting good recruits year after year.

How Michigan is doing this season

A lot has been made about Michigan’s big COVID outbreak at the restart of Big Ten play around New Year’s, but the Wolverines had their fair share of struggles before that. They’ve lost games to Seton Hall (No. 44 KenPom), Arizona (No. 3 KenPom), North Carolina (No. 37 KenPom), Minnesota (No. 88 KenPom) and UCF (No. 82 KenPom) before they got hit by the virus, falling short of their high preseason ranking of No. 6 in the polls. The Wolverines started Big Ten play by losing their first three games, but as they’ve gotten healthier recently, they have rallied and clawed back to an even record with three consecutive wins, among them an impressive blowout of Indiana. At 10-7, Michigan currently sit at No. 28 in KenPom, trailing Michigan State by 10 spots (No. 18).

Projected Starting Lineup

PG DeVante Jones (Sr., 6-1, 205 lbs, 8.4 points, 3.9 assists, 45.6% FG, 39.1% 3P FG)

SG Eli Brooks (Sr., 6-1, 185 lbs, 11.5 points, 2.9 assists, 41.8% FG, 36.2% 3P)

SF Caleb Houstan (Sr., 6-8, 205 lbs, 10.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 39.9% FG, 35.4% 3P)

PF Moussa Diabate (Fr., 6-11, 210 lbs, 9.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 57.0% FG, 30.0% 3P)

C Hunter Dickinson (So., 7-1, 255 lbs, 17.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 61.1% FG, 39.1% 3P)

Key Reserves

G Kobe Bufkin (Fr., 6-4, 175 lbs)

F Terrance Williams (So, 6-7, 240 lbs)

G Frankie Collins (Fr., 6-1, 185 lbs)

F Brandon Johns (Sr., 6-8, 240 lbs)

What to expect from Michigan

Michigan first and foremost defines itself with methodical offense, as the Wolverines rank No. 21 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency offense metric (the Wolverines’ defense is only listed at No. 59 currently). Michigan plays at a very slow pace, which ranks in the 300s nationally and makes sense, as the team’s biggest centerpiece in Hunter Dickinson is a player more suited for a half-court game. The massive post-up presence is another test for the Spartans‘ interior defense after they dodged a bullet against Illinois with Kofi Cockburn missing the game on Tuesday night. Dickinson presents a completely different challenge from the forceful Cockburn as he can extend his game all the way out to the three-point line (he is shooting a strong 39.1 percent on 1.5 attempts per game). Now he won’t launch them as frequently as somebody like Moe Wagner used to do, but his outside shot still has to be respected and be accounted for.

Michigan v Indiana
MSU will see plenty of that from Hunter Dickinson on Saturday.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In the post, Dickinson can and will be a focal point, both as a scorer with his back to the basket and as a passer (he’s averaging 2.3 assists per game). UM uses him plenty to open up space for others, either kicking out or dishing to his fellow front-court colleagues. Overall Michigan takes a lot of two-points shots, and while the Wolverines shoot a decent percentage from three-point distance, the team doesn’t really create that many looks from downtown (under 19 attempts per game).

The backcourt duo of Eli Brooks and experienced Sun Belt transfer De’Vante Jones was supposed to be a strong anchor for Michigan, yet that didn’t materialize until recently. Jones, arguably the most natural point guard on the roster, struggled to find his role early, and with a combo guard next to him, things weren’t always smooth. Lack of fluid movement, turnovers and bad shot situations were often the result, but Jones has recently turned it around and added the expected calming presence for the Wolverines. Brooks is more comfortable as a scorer, mostly from the outside, and has taken well to Jones‘ development.

Outside of that, Michigan features plenty of inexperienced but highly-promising youngsters. Caleb Houstan was the No. 11 recruit nationally in the 2021 class out of Montverde Academy, and even if he has struggled with consistency, he is someone who can make a scoring impact from all three levels. Michigan also adds an athletic dimension with him and fellow freshmen Moussa Diabate and Kobe Bufkin, something the Wolverines sorely need with the rather flat-footed Dickinson and their smallish backcourt. Howard allows his team to play with plenty of NBA principles; he loves to find mismatches and takes advantage of his players‘ individual strengths. Often, you will find the Wolverines operating in more basic sets like two-men picks, in and out passes or simple pick-and-rolls. While not always pretty, and at times plodding, this type of strategy gets more dangerous with every game as Michigan gets more comfortable in its sets and thus can show more of the team’s firepower.

Defensively, and on the glass, Michigan is solid yet unspectacular. The Wolverines don’t create a lot of turnovers, don’t really have a constant shot-blocking presence and can be vulnerable in the pick-and-roll with Dickinson or their younger front-court players. UM will kick the ball around at times and has gotten stronger in that regard recently with Jones playing better. First and foremost, Michigan wants to bring the ball to the basket, wants to take high-percentage shots and forces your defense to adjust to that. Anything else comes second, including Michigan’s own defense, even if the Wolverines’ individual talent has masked some inconsistencies here and the group overall has potential in that area. Another thorn in Michigan’s side has been free-throw shooting where, where the squad only converts on 68.6 percent of its attempts.

Key matchup: Michigan State versus its own emotions

There are plenty of individual matchups that bear watching like Houstan versus Gabe Brown or Dickinson versus Marcus Bingham Jr., but in the end, this game should be about Michigan State’s mindset. It is a rivalry game that can a.) keep MSU right in the thick of things in the Big Ten title race and b.) can bury the Spartans’ most hated rival for quite some time in the conference’s no man’s land. Right now the Spartans are the better, more stable team, and MSU should play like that. If the Spartans channel the push from the crowd, then it would go a long way to securing a victory in this game.