Michigan State (13-2, 4-0): No. 18 (Kenpom)
1 - Tyson Walker (6’0” Jr.), A.J. Hoggard (6’4” So.)
2 - Max Christie (6’6” Fr.), Jaden Akins (6’4” Fr.)
3 - Gabe Brown (6’8” Sr.), Pierre Brooks II (6’6” Fr.)
4 - Joey Hauser (6’9” Sr.), Malik Hall (6’7” Jr.)
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr. (7’0” Sr.), Julius Marble (6’9” Jr.), Mady Sissoko (6’9” So.)
After two shambolic performances against solid conference opponents — shambolic due almost exclusively to absurd turnovers and substandard defensive execution — the Michigan State Spartans need to rally in a major way as the team faces the down-trodden Michigan Wolverines. Teams like Michigan are extremely dangerous — a talented team that has failed to gel, faces an opponent they bitterly despise, and comes into the game with a nothing-to-lose perspective on their season. The
Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard will need to both perform at a high level in this one to ensure that the team dominates the point-guard position battle — a battle I expect them to win. Why will Walker and Hoggard win this battle? Because Michigan does not force turnovers, neither of their opponents are high level defenders, because both Walker and Hoggard should be able to consistently generate offensive advantage situations in one-on-one situations and in the pick-and-roll, and because both Walker and Hoggard stand a great chance of generating stocks (steals and blocks) against the Michigan lead guards.
Michigan’s chief advantage probably rests in the front-court — Hunter Dickinson remains a mountain of a man, and had some solid success scoring the ball and rebounding in the two matchups against Michigan State last season. Moussa Diabate is a tall, long, athletic future NBA player who will have a size and length advantage against both Malik Hall and Joey Hauser. Despite this potentially thorny position group battle, I am confident that the Spartans’ bigs can at least draw their game-within-a-game against the Wolverines’ bigs. Neither Diabate nor Dickinson are great passers, and Dickinson struggled mightily with turnovers against the Spartans last season on a team with far better perimeter shooting and spacing. Furthermore, neither Diabate nor Dickinson are having monster seasons defensively. While college basketball fans should expect to see a far better defensive performance from these two by the end of the season, at this point they get spread out, lost off-ball and worked in space and the pick-and-roll.
Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble, Hall and Hauser should all find some success, and even Mady Sissoko — whose struggles this season have been maddening — should have a good outing. Sissoko performed well, even in defeat, against Michigan last season, and will relish defending the bigger and stronger Dickinson. Expect Hall and Hauser to have a real impact off the bounce and with their penetration and passing against Diabate, Terrance Williams and the mercurial Brandon Johns Jr.
This game will really be decided on the wings. So let’s talk about Michigan State’s wings: Gabe Brown has turned in an all-conference season so far (and if he keeps this up may end up in All-American conversations), Max Christie has begun to find his stride on the offensive side of the ball and Jaden Akins has continued to play strong defense despite an up-and-down offensive season (largely due to usage variance and lack of off-the-dribble opportunities).
Take a look at Brown’s season so far:
The HUGE “green” boxes say it all: Brown has doubled his points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game and steals per game from last season. He has scored in double-figures in every game but one this season, and he has increased his “shot-percentage” (the percentage of shots he takes while on the floor) by nearly 50 percent from last season (taking over 25 percent of shots while he is on the court). Brown now uses 20 percent of possessions when he is on the court and he is taking over six three-point attempts per game now, while maintaining a nearly 40 percent three-point field goal percentage.
Yes, Brown is still not a great self-creator of offense (though his off-the-dribble game has dramatically improved this season, and been aided by the generally excellent spacing on the court), but his consistent willingness to take shots — even well-contested shots — has carried and sustained the Spartan offense at times this season. Brown is having a senior season to remember already, and his confidence levels are sky-high right now. A confidence that is being bolstered by his comfort and excellence off-ball as a defender. In a free-safety role off-ball, Brown is jumping passing lanes, swatting shots as a help or recovering defender, and generally exerting a consistent defensive presence that is haunting opposition wings. This is a man on a mission and primed to emerge as a surefire NBA player by the season’s end.
Brown’s running mate, Christie, and his deputy, Akins, have begun to emerge as consistent players in their own rights. Christie, who started the year as a strong defender, but whose shot took a while to get going, has really begun to warm up from three-point range. I have mused repeatedly that I believe his “true” three-point ability to be around 40 percent, and have been expecting a “regression” to that true mean for some time. In the last few games, this expectation has begun to come to fruition as Christie has shot 9-for-14 from three-point range in those contests, and is now sitting at 36.8 percent from three-point range over the balance of his first four Big Ten games, and at 35 percent for the season overall. After watching him struggle in the first 10 or so games of the season, I was doubting my prediction that Christie would be a one-and-done player, and while he still may choose to eschew the NBA Draft this summer, he has certainly righted his trajectory — if Christie returns for a sophomore season in Green and White, it will be every bit as surprising to NBA evaluators, at this point, as Gary Harris’ and Miles Bridges’ decisions.
Finally, in his own right, Akins has flashed his dynamic ability and monster potential. While he has yet to put it all together consistently, Akins’ athleticism is already clearly at an NBA level and his ability to generate shots for himself off the dribble remains possibly the best on the team. Where Akins’ “money” is being made right now, however, is on the defensive end, where his ability to stay with ball-handlers, challenge shots, and secure rebounds with his incredible bounce is really shoring up the wing rotation and giving the staff a ton of confidence.
It is this wing group that is the bedrock of the Michigan State offense, and it is this group that will decide Saturday’s contest in Ann Arbor.
Michigan (7-6, 1-2): No. 28 (Kenpom)
1 - DeVante’ Jones (6’1” Sr.), Frankie Collins (6’1” Fr.)
2 - Eli Brooks (6’1” Sr.), Kobe Bufkin (6’4” Fr.)
3 - Caleb Houstan (6’8” Fr.), Zeb Jackson (6’5” So.)
4 - Moussa Diabate (6’11” Fr.), Terrance Williams (6’7” So.), Brandon Johns Jr. (6’8” Sr.)
5 - Hunter Dickinson (7’1” So.), Jaron Faulds (6’10” Sr.)
Michigan has struggled mightily
of late all season. The Wolverines have been unable to generate turnovers or stop dribble penetration on defense, they have failed to get out in transition to generate easy looks (as evidenced further by their slow pace — No. 275 in the nation in pace of play, per Kenpom), and they take a staggeringly low number of three-point attempts (in fact, both Michigan and Michigan State need to take more three-pointer shots— the Spartans only rank No. 256 in the nation in three-point attempt rate, while Michigan sits at No. 270). But while the Spartans need to shoot more three-point shots because they are so good at them, Michigan needs to shoot more of them merely to force defenses further away from the paint.
Dickinson needs space on offense, and he has yet to find it consistently. While Eli Brooks DeVante’ Jones do a solid job from behind the arc, Caleb Houstan has really struggled. The five-star recruit was billed as a three-point sniper and sure-fire first-round pick in the NBA Draft (I for one remain skeptical of the high school evaluation and NBA projection due to concerns about his athleticism and feel for the game), but he has failed to live up to those expectations sitting at just 31 percent from three-point range on the season and a mere 15 percent against “Tier-A” competition.
Diabate remains raw, but explosively dynamic at times, and Williams and Johns have had up-and-down seasons. The real frustration for Michigan head coach Juwan Howard, surely, is the poor play of Frankie Collins and Kobe Bufkin — two freshmen who were viewed as fringe one-and-done candidates (if things went well), but both of whom have been largely inefficient offensive players and inept defenders.
Despite all of this, the talent remains. Howard still can coach a decent ball-game, and Michigan does have size. At the risk of someone passing this information on to the coaching staff at Michigan, this team will only really take off if Houstan becomes a full-time “four,” Diabate becomes a full-time center, and if Bufkin and Zeb Jackson get all of the minutes at the wing position opposite Brooks. This team needs to get smaller and to let the young guys play more and make more mistakes.
Rutgers hit some bonkers shots in this one, but that happens against defenses that inspire confidence. Michigan’s defense should have the guys in Green and White dreaming of glory. Hoggard will have to play a really smart and error-free game because he will be able to “break the paint” — he has to be judicious about when to take his shots at the rim, when to kick the ball to open shooters, and when to drop-off to Dickinson’s man. Keep an eye on Hoggard’s points and assist-to-turnover ratio, because those stats may tell the story of the game.
Michigan will play a lot of zone once its man-to-man defense breaks down, and the biggest flaw in the Wolverine defense may just be Dickinson, who, despite being a good shot-blocker if people run right into him, is so immobile off-ball that he can only play an ineffectual “drop” role in whatever defense Michigan plays. Dickinson gets caught in no-man’s land often, which explains why Michigan’s defense at the rim tends to be quite poor this season. The other big challenge for Michigan is that it plays two smaller guards most of the game who just cannot challenge shots effectively against bigger players.
For these two reasons, it would behoove Tom Izzo to give Christie a lot more opportunities to attack the Michigan defense in pick-and-roll whenever Michigan plays man-to-man — run “2-5 pick-and-roll” as often as possible because Dickinson will drop and the smaller guards will not be able to bother Christie’s shot in the slightest (I want Christie taking 15 shots in this one).
The biggest area of concern in this matchup is Diabate. His talent on both ends has not proved consistent enough in terms of production for Michigan to rely on him, but this matchup is a good one. Despite Hauser’s excellent play of late, and despite Hall’s consistency on defense, Diabate should be able to score around, through and over both guys — if MSU’s forwards win their battles with Diabate, Williams and Johns, then MSU fans should feel great.
The last warning shot is Houstan — do NOT let this be the game that gets his NBA resumé back up-and-running. Stay close to Houstan and Brooks in particular and invite just about everyone else to shoot three-point shots. If Jones and Dickinson win the game by hitting five three-point shots apiece, I will shave all of the hair on my body.
Do not turn the ball over and execute on defense. Bingham, Marble, and Sissoko need to compete and make life difficult for Dickinson, and run the ball down the Wolverines’ throats at every opportunity possible.
Expect a tough one. Michigan will be up for this one. The crowd will be loud. Expect some highlight plays from the Wolverines. Stay level-headed and execute. This one will be about mental toughness in a intense rivalry game/
Players play. Tough players win.