Michigan went into East Lansing and beat No. 4 ranked Michigan State on Saturday with its best performance of the season.
There was really only one script that the Wolverines could follow to leave with an upset win, but they followed it verbatim.
In my preview at The Athletic, I outlined five statistical battles that could swing this game: ball screen offense, transition defense, post-up defense, defensive rebounding and turnovers.
The Wolverines won all five battles and won the game.
So many Michigan games over the last few seasons have been defined by cat-and-mouse adjustments in the pick-and-roll game. The Wolverines have seen almost every ball screen defensive adjustment in the book and sometimes they sputter, other times they adjust and sometimes they are stopped.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo doesn’t make reactionary coaching decisions. He’s not the type of coach to draw up a new defensive look on a clipboard in a timeout to stop a single player. On Tuesday, Matt Painter did just that when he decided to switch every ball screen with his 7-foot-3, 290-pound center.
Instead, Izzo has a defense that he believes can win every game. The Spartans have the longest and most impressive front court in college basketball and, up until this afternoon, had the best defense in the country.
It is tough to critique the Hall of Fame head coach’s decisions on that end of the floor, but it is also a bit easier to plan for them.
“If Michigan State switches all ball screens then the sky is falling,” John Beilein joked on Friday.
Michigan knew what it had to do to win in East Lansing and it wasn’t a secret. Actually doing it would require a new level of consistency on both ends of the floor that it hadn’t demonstrated all season.
The Spartans’ ball screen defense plays right into Moritz Wagner’s strengths, but to win he would need to play the game of his life. The 6-foot-11 junior has been battling injury and has been up-and-down during a year he was expected to be an All-Big Ten performer, but he answered the challenge.
Wagner finished with a career high 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting and carried the Wolverines to the rivalry win.
Michigan State’s answer — moving Jaren Jackson Jr. to center — was left standing in the corner guarding Michigan’s perimeter threats until it was too late.
Nothing came easy for Michigan, but the Wolverines scored 1.17 points per possession on the road against what was the No. 1 defense in the country. That’s just the second time this season that the Wolverines have topped 1.15 points per possession against a high-major opponent.
Jaren Jackson blocked six shots and Michigan made just 42.8 percent of its twos, but it kept attacking in the pick-and-roll game and made plays when it mattered. The Wolverines did hit 40 percent of their threes to inch their way to a 47% effective field goal percentage. Early on when adjusting to Michigan State’s length, some timely offensive rebounds allowed the Wolverines to pick up key baskets.
There was nothing complicated with what Michigan did on offense as it all revolved around the high ball screen and creating leverage for Wagner against a recovering big man or allowing Michigan’s guards to isolate and drive to the basket with the rest of the Spartan defense spread around the perimeter.
Make no mistake about it: this wasn’t a game that game down to untimely hot shooting. The Wolverines only made 3-pointer in the second half and still outscored the Spartans 48-35 in the final 20 minutes. Michigan State finished with 34 points in the paint, but Michigan finished with 32. Both teams were even with 12 second chance points.
There were 51 fouls in the game and the Spartans were in the bonus for roughly 15 minutes in both halves. Even with Michigan State’s late intentional fouling, the Spartans posted a 73% free throw rate on the game to Michigan’s 61%.
Other than the fouling — and a game with lots of whistles against Michigan State is better for Michigan than a game with none — Michigan’s defense was incredibly solid. The Wolverines rebounded 71% of Michigan State’s missed shots and continued to prove that this year’s defensive rebounding effort is legitimate.
Michigan State made 55% of its twos, but Michigan’s ‘tough twos not open threes’ approach was in full effect. The Wolverines did a tremendous job negating of Josh Langford (who scored his first career basket against Michigan in his 6th half) and Matt McQuaid’s ability to score off of screens on the wings — that duo was 2-of-8 from the floor and didn’t make a 3-pointer — and they took away the 3-point shot. Michigan State was only 3-of-13 from long range and most of those looks came with the game already out of hand.
“As the head goes, the body goes with it,” Tom Izzo remarked about his point guard play after the game.
Zavier Simpson took out the head. Simpson was the best point guard on the floor and his defensive presence made life miserable for Cassius Winston. In the end, Michigan State’s point guards finished with two assists to five turnovers.
With Winston struggling, Michigan State ran more action through Miles Bridges. He had his moments (19 points on 13 shots and 4 assists), but he also turned the ball over 4 times. Nick Ward only played 14 minutes and was 2-of-5 from the floor with 3 turnovers and the Spartans weren’t willing to risk his defensive weaknesses if he wasn’t going to be perfect from the floor. Two effective double teams that led to turnovers in the second half essentially ended Ward’s night (he played just 14 minutes).
The Spartans turned the ball over once every four times down the floor and Michigan made them pay, outscoring the Spartans 26-7 in points off of giveaways.
Michigan has the best transition defense in the country and it held up against the Spartans’ vaunted transition attack. Michigan State only scored 2 fast break points and Michigan dictacted the pace all afternoon.
This gives Michigan that feather-in-the-cap quality win it had been searching for and changes the complexion of the season — moving the Wolverines up to 17th on KenPom. This is the sort of “we’re legit” statement win that can galvanize a team, but there also isn’t a lot of time to celebrate because Maryland is heading to Ann Arbor for a Monday night game.
- Moritz Wagner: “He Scott Skiles’d it, he talked it and he talked it,” Tom Izzo said of Wagner’s performance. Wagner’s performance at the Breslin Center will go up next to Zack Novak and Nik Stauskas as a guy who went out, embraced the hostile environment and won the game for Michigan in East Lansing. There was a long time that Michigan couldn’t find a guy like that and — contrary to popular belief — they don’t have to grow up in the state of Michigan. Overall, he got involved in the right ways — facing the basket, driving, popping, cutting — and then hit a huge one-legged Dirk shot late in the game that he’s almost never made for good measure.
- Zavier Simpson: The personal undertones in this matchup have been made clear at this point, but Simpson went out and outplayed Cassius Winston on his home floor. Simpson hit an early three and despite being the smallest player on the floor, he made 4-of-8 twos against the Spartans’ dominant interior defense. Simpson’s progression over the last month has been transformational for this team and I loved how Beilein stuck with him even after he missed those late hack-a-Simpson free throws.
- Charles Matthews: Matthews isn’t a perfect player, but this was a gutty effort. He was just 3-of-10 from the floor with 2 assists to 2 turnovers, but he made big plays and battled his ass off defensively against Bridges including a major rejection at the rim. Matthews missed his fair share of shots but he had the huge pick-and-roll dunk (a playbook wrinkle that might have been queued up for just that moment) and got the job done.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Like Matthews, this wasn’t Abdur-Rahkman’s most efficient night. He was just 2-of-7 on twos and 1-of-4 on 3-pointers, but he was basically left on an island to isolate and make a play against one of the best defenses in the country. Beilein referred to Abdur-Rahkman’s leadership style as ‘leading with a whisper’ and his constant presence on the floor (39 minutes) just seemed to hold everything together. Go back through the film and there will be all kinds of subtle game changing plays like his two steals or sliding over to draw a first half charge on Jackson.
- Isaiah Livers: The first three or four possessions of the game, Michigan State isolated against Livers and drove baseline. He had held his ground and played great defense all three times. If Duncan Robinson is on the floor there, Michigan might have been down 10-2. Livers had 3 of Michigan’s 7 turnovers and got sped up a few times, but his energy, defensive and length was critical in the win.
- Jon Teske: Michigan’s offense wasn’t nearly as potent with Teske on the floor, but he was solid defensively and made enough plays for U-M to hold on. He had 4 points, 4 rebounds and an assist off the bench in 8 minutes — that’s more than anyone would have asked for.
- Jordan Poole: Poole is a roller coaster. He knocked in a pair of free throws after pump faking Miles Bridges into the air, but missed all three shots from the floor. He was a bit too sped up on offense and got backcut several times on defense. That being said, the potential is there and he’ll play a key role moving forward.
- Duncan Robinson: Robinson came off the bench for the first time this year and scored 3 points in 18 minutes. He hit his only 3-point attempt and survived, sort of, battling against Jackson for 18 minutes. Right now, Michigan needs him to settle into that bench shooter role and make 2 or 3 per game moving forward.
- Eli Brooks: Brooks missed a pair of threes in 10 minutes off the bench, but did make a great play in transition to tie up Cassius Winston. The shot is still mis-calibrated, but he held his own leading the team.
- Austin Davis: Davis hasn’t played in Big Ten action, but was thrown into the game for 2 first half minutes and grabbed one rebound while fouling twice. Michigan went with Livers at the four later on when Teske and Wagner were out.