Team 102

Matchup Breakdown: Michigan at Michigan State

Michigan and Michigan State only play once this season and we’re splitting our traditional game preview into two parts. Today, we’ll start with the matchup breakdown and scouting report.

Michigan and Michigan State only play once this season and we’re splitting our traditional game preview into two parts. Today, we’ll start with the matchup breakdown and scouting report.

Today’s post features a compilation of Krossover shot charts and other advanced stats to examine the key matchups in Saturday’s contest.

Two and a half years ago, Michigan took Zavier Simpson’s commitment despite spending years recruiting Cassius Winston. The two sophomore lead guards saw the court at the same time in last year’s games, but this will be both point guard’s first start in the rivalry.

Winston is the best offensive point guard in the Big Ten, but he plays for a coach who values defense. Because of that fact, he’s had to battle Tum Tum Nairn for minutes early in his career.  A year ago, Nairn played 49 minutes against Michigan, Winston played just 40. Simpson’s situation is the opposite. He’s probably the best defensive point guard that John Beilein has coached, but he’s had to improve his offensive game to earn the role and then earn it again.

Turning Winston into a less efficient version of himself is one of the primary keys toward slowing Michigan State’s offense. Here’s a plot from of Winston’s offensive rating per game this season.

He’s dipped below his average by a significant amount in seven games: Duke, DePaul, North Carolina, Rutgers (home and away), Oakland and Ohio State. That group of games includes Michigan State’s seven worst offensive performances along with its six closest games on a per-possession basis. Winston might play on a team with a couple of lottery picks, but he’s the most valuable player on this Michigan State roster.

Winston plays effectively out of the pick-and-roll, is ranked 4th nationally in assist rate and has made over 50% of his threes this year for good measure. His offensive weakness is trying to do too much with the ball which has led to his elevated turnover rate.

Simpson’s primary task will be to disrupt Winston’s flow offensively. Simpson has been Michigan’s best defender this season and his ability to cause turnovers can be disruptive. On offense, Simpson won’t be the focal point of Michigan’s attack, but he’ll need to make plays late in the clock when things break down.

He’s shooting an impressive 69% at the rim this season thanks to an array of creative scoop shots, but his inability to shoot to shoot the ball off the dribble makes him a precarious option in those late clock situations. On the season, Simpson is 0-of-3 on off the dribble jumpers and has a 68.8 effective field goal percentage on jumpers off the catch (11-of-24).

Joshua Langford’s shot chart does a tremendous job of illustrating his role in the Michigan State offense. He runs the floor hard every possession as a wing outlet in transition who can catch the ball and shoot or catch the ball and drive baseline in an unsettled situation. In half court sets, Langford is going to run through an array of screens and try to free himself for an open jumper.

Langford loves the one dribble pull-up jumper and over 40% of his shot attempts are in the mid-range where he connects at a solid 41%. That’s a shot that opposing defenses can live with because three points are more than two and Langford shoots 47% on 3-pointers.

If you drew a triangle from the basket covering the middle of the floor, you’ll notice very little production from Langford. He isn’t in a playmaking and slashing role and he’s not the Spartan player that you have to worry about carving up the defense and driving middle.

If you surveyed both fan bases about their starting shooting guards, the word enigma would probably pop up quite a bit. Both players are capable of huge games, but disappear in others. Langford scored 1 point in 29 minutes in two games against Michigan last season. Something tells me that he’ll be hearing about that quite a bit over the next 48 hours and will be an early focus for the Spartans.

Abdur-Rahkman will be tasked with chasing Langford through a bevy of screens on Saturday on defense, something he probably saw enough of on Tuesday against Purdue, but his offensive role is very different. Abdur-Rahkman is one of Michigan’s primary handlers and he does play heavily in the middle of the court off of high ball screens and other action.

Abdur-Rahkman has struggled with his jumper off the bounce this season, but he’s been finishing well at the basket of late and has improved his ball screen efficiency in recent weeks. Michigan has called his number more often and he’ll be looking to bounce back after a poor showing versus Purdue. Langford’s isolation defensive numbers haven’t been great this year and that may be one area that Michigan will look to exploit.

Miles Bridges and Charles Matthews are both hyper-athletic players with the ability to finish above the rim, but their body types and styles of play are very different. Bridges is a natural small ball four who is playing the three in Michigan State’s jumbo lineup. He’s 6-foot-7, 230 pounds compared to Matthews’ wiry 6-foot-6, 200-pound frame.

Both players are great finishers and average perimeter shooters. Matthews has made 35% of his threes on 28% of attempts while Bridges is shooting 34% on 43% of attempts. Bridges shot 39% a season ago and has actually looked for his perimeter shot more often this year than last year.

The other notable difference is in their offensive roles. Charles Matthews is one of Michigan’s primary creators and playmakers while Bridges is still growing into that kind of a role. To illustrate that point, 73% of Bridges’ made field goals this season have been assisted compared to just 41% of Matthews’. Matthews is also averaging 5.9 pick and roll possessions per game, scoring .99 points per possession, whereas Bridges averages just 2 per game at .83 points per possession.

Matthews has struggled to get out of his own way at times as he learns to deal with being the top name on the scouting report. He’s had some turnovers in mental lapses and some of his bread-and-butter plays like the shuffle cut post-up will be difficult to get to against Michigan State’s length.

Michigan State’s defensive key will be taking away what Matthews wants to do with the ball in his hands while Michigan might be better off taking the ball out of Winston’s hands and forcing Bridges to make plays off the dribble. Forcing the lottery pick to beat you sounds a bit foolish, but allowing the star point guard to beat you and provide easy looks for the lottery pick along the way turns out to be a worse approach.

Isaiah Livers hasn’t started a game yet for Michigan, but he’s dramatically outplayed Duncan Robinson over the last three games. In a matchup against Michigan State’s size and length, expect Livers to feature heavily once again — if he doesn’t start.

Livers’ offensive role has been limited to primary cuts to the rim, catch-and-shoot threes and transition leak outs and lobs. He’s shot chart is little more than catch and shoot corner threes and dunks. That’s all Michigan needs from the position and Livers has been ultra-efficient (with an effective field goal percentage over 100% in the last three games) and provided an insurgence of energy.

Jaren Jackson is younger than Michigan’s youngest freshman (Jordan Poole, his prep teammate) and is a couple months away from being a NBA lottery pick. He’s one of those rare players where you know his best basketball is ahead of him, but he’s still damn good right now. Jackson’s block rate ranks 11th nationally and he’s an imposing presence on both backboards.

His shooting stroke has an odd push motion to it, but it works. He’s shooting 44% from three and was also a proficient 3-point shooter in high school. Jackson plays the four and is very efficient posting up in limited opportunities, but he generally floats to the perimeter a fair amount. Closing out on him and making him put the ball on the floor is critical because he’s not nearly as comfortable making plays off the bounce.

How good has Jackson been this year? His freshman year comparable players on KenPom are Myles Turner, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach Collins, Steven Adams and Joel Embiid.

Jackson’s kryptonite this season has been the whistle. He’s been called for 6 fouls per 40 minutes and fouled out of Michigan State’s recent loss in Columbus with over 10 minutes to play. He picks up too many fouls on the offensive end of the floor and has seemed to let those mistakes compound at different times this year.

Livers is Michigan’s only player who can really contend with Jackson’s combination of length, athleticism and skill. His recent hot shooting should be critical to provide some of the extra floor spacing that Michigan needs to pull Jackson away from the rim. This will also be the toughest rebounding test yet for the 6-foot-7 freshman forward.

This matchup is as intriguing between the ears as it is between the lines. Nick Ward is an old school post-up scorer who likes to push his way around the rim and Moritz Wagner is a pick-and-pop big man who likes to spread out opposing teams and drive past players like Ward. Both players are incredibly emotional, prone to pick up fouls, and have a few tricks up their sleeves. Ward received a technical foul in both games against Michigan last year and Wagner received one at the Breslin Center.

This one might get chippy.

Beyond what each player actually does on the floor, their mere presence will change the opponents’ defensive plan. Both Tom Izzo and John Beilein have critical decisions to make. However Izzo decides to guard ball screens or Beilein decides to guard the post will shift the offensive pressure to a different player. If Michigan doubles, maybe it forces Langford to have a big shooting night. If Michigan State plays a traditional hedge and recover, the onus is on Wagner to make them pay. If the Spartans switch everything, then the guards need to attack and hit shots.

Ward isn’t Isaac Haas or Ethan Happ, but he’s one of the league’s better players at creating offense (for himself and his teammates) on the low block. Here’s how he stacks up against the rest of the league in points created out of post-ups (including passes), per Synergy.

Wagner has struggled to contain the low post defensively and will have his work cut out defending Ward. Wagner’s offensive numbers are also intriguing this year following a year where he was efficient almost across the board. Wagner has struggled as a post-up scorer this year (27th percentile) and has managed just 2 points in 11 isolation possessions. He’s still excelled as a pick and roll/pop player and spotting up attacking slower big men on close outs.

The key for Michigan is to move Wagner around on the perimeter as much as possible. Make Ward hedge and recover against ball screens, communicate on switches for back screens and play in areas where he’s not used to playing. Michigan did a great job utilizing all of this action in the game in Ann Arbor last year.

Note that every Wagner basket starts with him catching the ball on the perimeter or cutting from the perimeter to the hoop rather than catching the ball on the block.


Michigan State plays its bench for heavy minutes and Tum Tum Nairn, Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins and Gavin Schilling should play the most minutes in reserve roles. Nairn and Goins are offensive liabilities when they are on the floor. Both players hesitate to shoot the ball and are on the floor for their defensive and rebounding. When they are on the floor, expect Michigan to experiment with using their defender as a low-post double option against Ward.

McQuaid is a 3-point shooting threat (he’s made 38% of his threes and 3 out of every 4 shot attempts is a three), but he’s also a good wing defender. He’s critical for Michigan State because he’s the only reserve they have at the two and three positions other than playing two point guards.

Schilling is mostly a catch-and-finish guy inside, but he’s also a great rebounder. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior is also a plus-defender and has been a better ball screen defender than Ward over his career. Xavier Tillman could also see some reserve minutes at the five, he’s a 6-foot-8, 260 pound freshman who plays with his back to the basket in a similar fashion to Ward, but I’d imagine Schilling would be the preferred option against Michigan’s ball screen offense.

On Michigan’s bench, the options have clearly defined roles. Jon Teske is Michigan’s defensive big man and he’s improved his game all around. His rebounding performance against Purdue was one of the best of his career, but when he’s on the court he doesn’t stress the Spartan defense. Jordan Poole has been growing into his role one highlight play at a time. He’s shifty and is shooting 41% from 3-point range. We covered Isaiah Livers above, but whether he starts or not Duncan Robinson will need to provide Michigan with some 3-point production in this game because he’ll be a defensive liability against Michigan State’s size up front.

At the point guard, Eli Brooks has been in a major offensive rut. He’s turned the ball over 4 times in the last 4 games and has only attempted 4 shots (all misses). Expect the Spartans to blitz him with pressure when he’s in the game and force him to try to attack it.

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