|Who: Michigan State (19-4, 6-4 B1G) at Michigan (17-6, 7-3 B1G)|
|Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, MI|
|When: 2:00 p.m., February 6th, 2016|
|Radio: 950 AM, 102.9 FM|
Nothing else is supposed to matter in a rivalry game, but there’s no question that Michigan and Michigan State enter their only matchup of the regular season on Saturday in different states of mind.
The Spartans have rebounded from an early three-game losing streak to knock off Maryland at home and steam-roll Northwestern and Rutgers. With a week off to prepare for the Wolverines, Michigan State has outscored its last three opponents by .38 points per possession. The Spartans have been shooting the lights out for several weeks and Denzel Valentine is rounding back into Player of the Year form after missing some time due to injury.
Michigan clawed its way to 7-2 with four solid, but unremarkable wins over bottom-half conference foes, despite playing without All-Big Ten guard Caris LeVert. But that feel-good momentum was quelled on Tuesday when the Wolverines were dominated at home by Indiana, surrendering a 28-0 run late in the first half and into the second.
Michigan looked like a team searching for answers on Tuesday night after defeat while Michigan State is starting to gel. Of course, Michigan’s most memorable win over the Spartans in the last decade game days after a six game losing streak, but the Wolverines will have their hands full on Saturday afternoon and will need to find some of the confidence and swagger they demonstrated three and half weeks ago.
Michigan State is outscoring Big Ten opponents by .15 points per possession through 10 league games despite dropping four games. When the Spartans have won, they’ve generally won big. Michigan State — not Michigan or Indiana — is the hottest three-point shooting team in the conference. The Spartans only attempt a third of their field goal attempts from long distance, but connect at a 43.2% clip. Inside the arc, Michigan State shoots just 47.4% on twos, 10th best in the conference, but still has the third-best eFG% in the league at 53.2%
As expected, the Spartans are also a great offensive rebounding team. Michigan State has rebounded 36.3% of its missed shots in league play, second best in the conference. There aren’t many better passing teams than Michigan State, which assists on a Big Ten-best 65.3% of its made field goals. Denzel Valentine is one of the elite passers in the country, but as a team the Spartans share the ball and find open shots as well as anyone.
Tom Izzo’s group has struggled to adjust to the new fouling rules. The Spartans are only ranked 13th in the Big Ten in offensive free throw rate and 11th in defensive free throw rate.
Michigan State’s undoing in its four Big Ten losses has been its defense. The Spartans surrendered 1.16 points per possession in their four conference losses and .88 points per possession in their conference wins. Michigan State won’t force many turnovers — on just 12.7% of Big Ten possessions — but it plays the best interior defense in the conference. Big Ten opponents are shooting just 42.2% on twos and 30.4% on threes for a 43.3% effective field goal percentage (2nd).
Senior guard Denzel Valentine’s Player of the Year candidacy was damaged by his minor knee procedure in January, but he’s still one of the truly elite guards and playmakers in the country. Valentine is a unique player because he usually drives to create for others and scores a surprising amount of his offense off of his teammates’ passes. Valentine is shooting 46% on twos and 48% on threes in Big Ten play with the third-best assist rate in the conference. He’s an elite pick-and-roll player that can pass
Bryn Forbes is the best shooter in the Big Ten not named Duncan Robinson. Per Shot Analytics, he scores 27.2 point above expectation per 100 field goal attempts, just 6 points behind Duncan Robinson. Forbes is lethal in catch-and-shoot scenarios and Tom Izzo will run him off of screens to get him open looks. The best bet defensively is to try to run him off the line and make him create something off the bounce or in the mid-range.
West Virginia transfer Eron Harris has had something of an up-and-down year for the Spartans. He’s a bit inconsistent, but he can hit the three and also has the quickness to slash into the lane. Conventional wisdom is that he’s the guy that you want to force to beat you, since he’s more of an isolation player than a passer, but he’s also more than capable of beating you himself if you allow him to. Harris could be a tough cover for Michigan with his ability to put the ball on the deck and drive past slower guards.
Michigan State has a spoil of riches when it comes to low-post talent. Matt Costello is now a senior and he played a monster game in Michigan State’s upset over Maryland. Costello is solid on both ends, a good finisher and arguably the best rebounder in the Big Ten — ranked 1st in offensive rebounding rate and 2nd in defensive rebounding rate. Costello is also Michigan State’s best roll-man in the ball screen game and has a great chemistry with Denzel Valentine.
As good as Costello has been, he’s not even the best big man on the Spartan roster in terms of talent. Deyonta Davis is a future pro and sooner than later. He’s played less than 50% of available minutes this season, but he’s been lethally effective. Davis is the best shot blocker in the Big Ten, he shoots 63% on twos (4th in the Big Ten), he grades out as MSU’s most efficient post-up option on the block, leads the Spartans in points off putbacks.
Point guard Lourawls Nairn has been out for the last five games due to plantar fasciitis and is “doubtful at best” according to Izzo. Nairn is a good on-ball defender and a great passer and transition player. He’s as good as anyone in the conference at forcing the ball up the court and creating easy offense. He’s also a bit of a liability in the half court offense given his lack of an adequate jumper (3-of-16 from three on the season).
The Spartans don’t really have a backup point guard and freshman guard Matt McQuaid has seen his minutes increase in Nairn’s absence. McQuiad has hit 7 of his last 11 three-point attempts after starting conference play on a 2-of-10 streak.
Kenny Goins is a mauling power forward that gets after it on the glass, but is very limited offensively (23 FGA all season). 6-foot-6 sophomore Marvin Clark will also play some minutes as more of a stretch four and is likely to see an increased role against Michigan. Clark has only played double digit minutes once since the calendar rolled into 2016.
- The power forward: Michigan State plays predominantly two big men as their combo forward options (Javon Bess and Marvin Clark) have seen big drops in minutes. Once again, that means Zak Irvin’s play on both ends of the floor is of the utmost importance to any Michigan win. If Deyonta Davis or Kenny Goins is playing the four, one of them is going to have to defend 4-5 ball screens. The two of them together have been logged for 3 possessions defending the ball handler in pick-and-roll scenarios. Irvin obviously has to guard a big on the other end, a concern with Davis rather than Goins, but he has a chance to force the Spartans to play smaller if he’s locked in offensively.
- Transition defense: Michigan State’s transition offense isn’t quite as potent as Indiana, although the Spartans push the ball almost as often, but watching Michigan’s abhorrent transition defense during Tuesday’s loss, I couldn’t shake visions of last year’s U-M/MSU game at the Crisler Center. The Spartans are going to push on makes and misses and if Michigan can’t improve its transition defense it’ll have major issues.
- Defensive rebounding: Michigan is ranked a respectable fifth in the conference in defensive rebounding rate in league play, but has shown signs of cracking over the last two games. Penn State and Indiana both rebounded over 36% of their misses, Michigan’s worst defensive rebounding games of the Big Ten season.
KenPom still ranks the Spartans 6th in the country and gives Michigan just a 41% chance of knocking off Michigan State at home, projecting a 73-71 final.