Team 99

Game 22: Michigan at Michigan State Preview

Michigan heads to the Breslin Center this weekend to renew its rivalry with Michigan State. The Wolverines have won six of the last nine meetings between the two programs, but will have their hands full in East Lansing against a Spartan team that will be hungry for revenge.

Who: Michigan (13-8, 6-3 B1G) at Michigan State (14-7, 5-3 B1G)
Where: Breslin Center (East Lansing, MI)
When: 1:00 p.m., February 1st, 2015
Radio: 950 AM, 1050AM

Four years ago, almost to the day, Michigan traveled to East Lansing and pulled off an upset that changed its program.

The Wolverines walked into the Breslin Center with a rotation that featured Darius Morris, Stu Douglass, Zack Novak, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Smotrycz, and Jordan Morgan and beat the Spartans, 61-57. It sounds dramatic to credit one victory to morphing a program, but the proof is undeniable.

Since that January evening, Michigan is 54-20 in Big Ten games. That’s the best record in the conference, better than Big Ten powerhouses Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State. Since that win the Wolverines have won two Big Ten Championships and nine NCAA tournament games. They’ve also beaten Michigan State six times in their last nine tries.

“Well guys, you wanted a rivalry, you wanted two good teams,” Izzo said last January. “I guess we got what we asked for.”

This is officially a rivalry and it’s as competitive as it has been for decades, even if both teams have taken something of a step back this season.

Now the Wolverines head to East Lansing with arguably their worst roster since that 2011 upset. They are riddled with injuries – Caris LeVert is out, Derrick Walton is questionable as he recovers from various foot and toe injuries – and haven’t managed to string together consistent positive play. Even with LeVert, this team lost to NJIT and Eastern Michigan at home and doesn’t have a single win worth bragging about.

The Spartans have also showed their fair share of troubles this season, but they’ll also smell blood in the water as a weakened Michigan team enters the Breslin Center.

The Spartans

Michigan State is 14-7 on the season with a 5-3 conference record. The Spartans have losses to Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame, Maryland (twice), Nebraska and … Texas Southern. Like Michigan, Michigan State’s roster is short on quality win substance other than a blowout home victory over Indiana and a win at Iowa. The Spartans are solid statistically, boasting one of the better efficiency margins in the conference despite dropping three games, but they have lacked consistency in an up and down season.

Michigan State’s success on both ends of the floor starts on the backboard. MSU leads the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 75% of its opponents’ misses, and ranks second in offensive rebounding, grabbing 36.4% of its misses.


Michigan State’s offense is scoring 1.07 points per possession, 5th best in the Big Ten, but its shooting has regressed somewhat in conference play. The Spartans still rank 55th nationally in two-point shooting and 19th in three-point shooting, but in Big Ten games they are shooting just 48.6% on twos (7th) and 34.8% on threes (9th).About 10% of Michigan State’s offense derives from the post and it scores in the 38th percentile on those possessions. 22% of its offensive possessions are ball screens and while Travis Trice has ran three times any many, Denzel Valentine is the most efficient ball screen scorer on the roster. Big man Matt Costello is also one of the more reliable rollers and finishers in the Big Ten.

After facing one of the worst zone offenses in the country on Tuesday, Michigan will be facing a much more imposing zone offense on Sunday. The Spartans grade out in the 78th percentile nationally against zone defenses and have the shooters to breakdown more simple zone defenses.

Defensively, Michigan State has the second best eFG% allowed in the Big Ten as opponents are shooting 42.5% on twos (2nd) and 32.9% on threes (5th). The Spartans are allowing .976 points per possession overall in conference games, best in the Big Ten after shutting down Rutgers on Thursday, but they don’t force many turnovers.

The Achilles’ heel of the Spartan defense has been its tendency to foul. Big Ten opponents have attempted 45 free throws per 100 field goal attempts – the worst free throw rate allowed in conference play. A defensive free throw rate of 42% has been the magic number for Michigan State this year. The Spartans are just 2-7 when allowing a free throw rate over 42% and 12-0 on the other side of the ledger.

Michigan has gotten to the free throw line that often in five games and only three times against high-major competition.

Michigan will undoubtedly be focused on slowing the game down and preventing Michigan State’s transition offense, but it also needs to be cognizant of a Spartan weakness. The Spartans do a great job of limiting transition opportunities (only Wisconsin limits transition opportunities more effectively), but they also give up a lot of easy points when they do allow transition. The following graph shows the relationship between percentage of defensive possessions in transition and points per possession allowed.


Michigan doesn’t want to get into a track meet with the Spartans, but pushing the ball a few times and taking a few early shots might not hurt.


Senior point guard Travis Trice has come a long way over his career and is now one of the focal points of Michigan State’s offense. He’s a good distributor with great assist (31.8% assist rate) and turnover (12.1% turnover rate) numbers, but he’s also one of Michigan State’s best shooters. Trice is shooting 38% on threes and just under half of his field goal attempts are triples. Running him off the line is critical as he’s only a 39.5% shooter inside the arc. He’s just 19 of 53 from three-point range in Big Ten games, a respectable 35.8%, but that includes a 7 of 8 night at Iowa. In his other eight league games he’s just 12 of 46 (26%).


Junior wing Denzel Valentine is the most natural playmaker on Michigan State’s roster, but that playmaking ability brings some headaches as well. Valentine has always been a streaky shooter, but he’s great from the corners and also has the best middle game among Michigan State’s starters. Valentine has been struggling with his three-point stroke in Big Ten games, going just 13 of 45 from long distance.


Senior forward Branden Dawson is the best rebounder in the Big Ten, but his two-point scoring numbers have declined a bit this year. His coach is quick to tell anyone that will listen that Dawson keeps missing layups, but he’s also taking on a bigger role in the offense. Dawson leads Michigan State in post-up opportunities and should provide a very difficult cover for Michigan wing Zak Irvin, who will likely draw the assignment (Max Bielfeldt could be another realistic option at the four in this game). Dawson doesn’t necessarily need to score to change the game as his physical presence can be a game changer defensively and on the glass.


Freshman point guard Lourawls Nairn has explosive speed, but he’s not a scorer. ‘Tum Tum’ is shooting just 29% on twos and is 0 of 3 from long distance this season. He’s a good passer and a player that can be effective in transition, but in half court sets he’s someone that you can cheat off of.

Big men Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling split the majority of the minutes at the five position. Both players are above-average rebounders, shot blockers and shoot over 60% on two-point attempts. Izzo will throw the ball into the post from time to time, but both players use roughly 20% of Michigan State’s possession when they are on the floor.

Cleveland State transfer Bryn Forbes is a pure shooter. 69% of his field goal attempts are threes and he shoots 47% from long distance. He doesn’t do much else (higher turnover rate than assist rate), but he’s a guy that you can’t lose in any of Izzo’s array of halfcourt offensive sets because he’ll make you pay with a triple.


Freshman wing Javon Bess is a do-everything wing forward that can pass, rebound and defend. Bess has some similarities to his former AAU teammate, JaeSean Tate, at Ohio State. Bess is able to influence the game in a number of ways and had been starting for the Spartans before spraining his ankle in practice and playing limited minutes at Rutgers.


  • Don’t let Branden Dawson dominate the game physically: Dawson’s not going to beat you with his jumpshot, handles or skills, but he’s more than capable of punking you all over the floor. Michigan needs to box out Dawson and keep him away from second chance opportunities. It was Dawson that dominated the Big Ten Tournament final last year and he’s a major concern for the Wolverines.
  • Transition defense: Michigan’s transition defense has shown major issues – especially against teams like Ohio State that are comfortable pushing the ball. Michigan State’s transition offense isn’t quite as good as Ohio State’s but is still plenty good enough to make Michigan pay. Look for the Wolverines to give up most offensive rebounding opportunities and focus on trying to get back in transition and stoppin the ball.
  • Defensive rebounding: Michigan State loves to crash the glass and a higher-percentage of its offensive possessions are putbacks than any team in the conference. Michigan has been about average on the defensive glass and will have its most difficult challenge of the year. Top-to-bottom the Wolverines need players to box out and get on the glass including the usual suspects (Doyle, Bielfeldt, Donnal) and the guards and wings (Irvin, Dawkins, etc.)
  • Derrick Walton’s health: Walton’s status remains in doubt. Beilein said that he ‘didn’t have anything definitive to say’ on Walton’s status during a radio interview on Thursday morning and the Wolverine point guard has been on a foot scooter to rest his toe since the Wisconsin game. Michigan was able to beat Nebraska without Walton, but would be hard pressed to win at Michigan State without its point guard and leader.

Bottom Line

Michigan State is a really hard team to read. When the Spartans are clicking they can blow teams out with ease, but there are other times when they just seem out of sync. The same team can blow out Indiana or dominate Iowa into submission can turn around and lose to Texas Southern or barely beat Northwestern at home.

Considering the stakes of the rivalry, it’s hard to imagine Michigan facing anything other than Michigan State at its best. KenPom projects a 65-57 Spartan victory and gives Michigan a 17% chance at pulling off the road upset.

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