It goes without saying that what happened in East Lansing makes Saturday’s game feel insignificant at most. Michigan is doing everything it can to honor the victims in East Lansing, including special warmups, honorary T-shirts, a moment of silence, a ‘Spartan Strong’ banner in the Maize Rage, lighting the Crisler Center green and white during the moment of silence, and even having the U-M Pep Band play MSU’s alma mater. Those are all appropriate gestures, and hopefully Saturday’s game can be a moment of unity amidst tragedy.
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There will be basketball on Saturday (8:00 p.m., FOX) night, and it is a final chance for Michigan to salvage something out of its season. The Wolverines haven’t won more than three games in a row this year, but they haven’t lost three in a row, either. That ability to snap two-game losing streaks will be tested on Saturday against a veteran Michigan State team that defends well and doesn’t beat itself.
Here’s what to watch for from both teams in the rivalry rematch.
Big Ten’s best defense
Michigan State is the best defensive team in the Big Ten, allowing .97 points per possession and ranked 17th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Spartans have held five of their last seven opponents under a point per possession and Michigan only managed .79 points per possession in East Lansing — its worst offensive output of the season.
Michigan State has guarded more post-ups than any team in the country, but has also held up to that challenge and grades out in the 94th percentile defensively. That interior strength to stand up to Hunter Dickinson will be pivotal in the rematch, but this game, like most, will come down to Michigan’s ability to create good shots out of its pick-and-roll offense.
The Spartans will almost assuredly play their typical hedge-and-recover ball screen defense. On the year, the Spartans grade out in the 38th percentile defending the pick-and-roll, so there are some vulnerabilities there, but the story will be how quickly the Wolverines can adapt and attack that defensive scheme.
It took 20 minutes for Michigan’s young guards to adjust to what MSU’s defense was doing in the first meeting, and by then it was too late. The Wolverines scored .64 points per ball screen play (including passes) in the first half in East Lansing compared to 1.4 points per play in the second half.
Comparing the first-half ball screens:
To the second-half ball screens:
The most notable takeaway is that the Wolverines were able to find Dickinson a few times on the roll, but also that the guards could get downhill in the paint rather than forced out to the side.
Elite 3-point defense
It’s tough to make jump shots against Michigan State.
Big Ten teams are shooting just 26.7% from three against the Spartans. On the year, opponents make 30.1% of their catch-and-shoot attempts, and 59.6% of those attempts are contested, per Synergy, the fourth-best rate in the Big Ten.
Sometimes basketball is as simple as making jump shots. Michigan State is just 2-6 when its opponents make better than 32% of their perimeter jumpers compared to 14-3 when they shoot worse than 32%. For reference, the Division I average is 34%. That reinforces how hard it has been for teams to make threes against the Spartans and how important it becomes.
The overly analytical will tell you that 3-point accuracy defense is mostly a product of statistical chance, while any coach of a top-20 3-point defense will tell you precisely the opposite. In reality, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Good defense, consistent shot contests and an appropriate scheme can absolutely impact 3-point defense. There’s also a lot of noise in the numbers; sometimes teams just make threes.
Transition threes are the best shots in college basketball, but the Spartans only allow 2.1 transition attempts per game from outside, one of the best rates in the Big Ten. Michigan State also does a great job in its ball screen coverages of hedging and recovering, putting pressure on the ball but never gambling for steals, and making things uncomfortable while always staying home.
Michigan went 3-of-20 from deep in East Lansing, and Hunter Dickinson and Jett Howard were the only Wolverines to score from outside the arc. That won’t cut it in the rematch.
A struggling offense
Michigan State’s defense has been phenomenal, but its offense has struggled to get in gear. The MSU offense is ranked 79th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and averages .99 points per possession in Big Ten games (11th) despite shooting 36.3% from 3-point range (4th in the league).
The Spartans are ranked 8th or worse in all four factors in Big Ten games: 8th in effective field goal percentage, 9th in turnover rate, 8th in offensive rebounding, and 13th in free-throw rate. The standout statistic is that MSU shoots just 47.1% on twos in league games (11th) and has only shot better than 50% inside the arc in one of its last six games.
That inefficient 2-point offense is a product of the type of shots that Michigan State attempts. Using Synergy’s Shot Quality metrics, we can see that the Spartans’ shot attempts in half-court offense have the lowest expected value in the league.
Michigan State’s shot quality is held back by an inability to score at the rim. The most valuable shots in the sport aren’t threes; they are dunks and layups.
The Spartans grade out in the 4th percentile in scoring volume at the rim (13th in the Big Ten) and the 13th percentile in scoring efficiency at the rim (14th in the Big Ten). Just 31.2% of their shot attempts come at the rim, and they only make 54.1% on those attempts.
For comparison, 11 of 14 teams in the Big Ten shoot at least 59.7% at the rim.
Michigan State’s best scoring options are Tyson Walker and Joey Hauser, and Tom Izzo runs both players off significant off-ball screening actions to free them up. Both players are elite shotmakers, but the problem is that most of these sets create open looks for each player to shoot 2-point jumpers. They both make them, but the reward doesn’t match the skill required for both players to shoot such an impressive percentage on these 17-foot jumpers.
A different Michigan State
It’s rare to write a Michigan State preview that doesn’t emphasize the importance of transition defense and defensive rebounding. Both are still vitally important in any game, but the classic Tom Izzo team would provide a stress test in both areas that few teams were ever prepared for.
The Spartans have routinely had one of the best transition offenses in college basketball and have always been renowned for crashing the glass. This team isn’t that.
After five straight top-100 offensive rebounding teams, this year’s group ranks just 219th in offensive rebounding rate. The Spartans have also slowed down dramatically, down to 272nd in average offensive possession length from 94th last season.
That dramatic shift away from the program standard helped fix some of the typical turnover woes in an Izzo team — 209th to 73rd this year — and the less aggressive approach on the offensive glass enables one of the best transition defenses in the league. And while the adjustments make sense based on a shorter bench and different personnel style, it also feels like that extra level of offensive upside is absent from this group.
Joey Hauser is the X-factor
Michigan State tends to go as Joey Hauser shoots. When Hauser makes shots, the Spartans win. When he doesn’t, things are difficult.
Hauser averages 15.8 points per game in wins, shooting 50% from three on 5.5 attempts per game. He averages only 9.9 points per loss, shooting 19% from three on 2.9 shots per game.
Michigan did a good job defensively against Hauser in the first meeting — he was 3-of-13 from the floor in 34 minutes — but will need to match a similar script in the rematch.
The power forward and wing matchups can get a bit funky for the Wolverines, and any potential absence for Terrance Williams II — who missed Tuesday’s game with a deep bone bruise in his knee — would make them even more complicated. The combination of Malik Hall and Hauser at the forward spots risks putting Jett Howard into uncomfortable situations.
Dickinson likes playing against Michigan State
Hunter Dickinson averages over 20 points per game against two teams throughout his career: Michigan State and Ohio State. Dickinson has played some of his best games against the Spartans, highlighted by his 33 points masterclass on 13-19 shooting in last year’s win in Ann Arbor.
Dickinson scored 18 points on 8-of-16 shooting in East Lansing this year, and Michigan will need more than that from him to flip the result in Ann Arbor. Michigan State was reasonably effective at mixing up coverages in that meeting, sending a double at times and digging aggressively when it didn’t bring an outright double.
Most notably, it wasn’t a repeat of last year’s approach where the Spartans tried to play Dickinson straight up for eighty minutes over two games. Michigan took seven shots on pass-outs out of Dickinson’s post-ups in the first meeting and missed all seven. The Wolverines scored 1 point (a split at the line for Terrance Williams) out of 8 post-up pass-outs — .125 points per play. If the Wolverines want to flip the result in the rematch, some of those shots have to go in.
Drawing some early fouls on Mady Sissoko feels like an obvious key. Sissoko is the best post-up defender and most physical big on the roster, and Hunter Dickinson had a lot of success inside after Tarris Reed Jr. got him in foul trouble in the first meeting. The Synergy numbers say that Jaxon Kohler is the worst post-up defender of the bunch, and the on/off numbers say that Carson Cooper has the worst net impact defensively (+7.9 points per 100 possessions).
- Malik Hall’s season has been riddled with injuries. He’s “back” and does make a big difference for the Spartans, but it is hard to believe that he’s completely healthy based on his stats. Hall is talented enough to be the best player on the roster but has posted offensive ratings under 100 in five of his last seven games. He averaged 12 and 5 per game, shooting 67% on twos and 36% on threes before his initial injury. He’s at 7.4 points and 4.2 rebounds, shooting 42% on twos and 43% on threes since.
- Jaden Akins has started making twos over the last six games. He’s 18-of-31 on twos over the last six after shooting 34% on twos over the first 15 games. He’s making his mid-range shots more effectively, but the most significant difference has been his ability to get to the rim and finish. He shot 46% at the rim in that first 15-game stretch compared to 64% over the last six.
- Pierre Brooks Jr. has gone cold from three (26% in Big Ten games compared to 39% in the non-conference) but still needs to be defended like a shooter because he has struggled to make plays with the ball.
- AJ Hoggard puts the most pressure on the rim with the ball in his hands and has improved with his mid-range jumper, but the scouting report is to sell out on making him beat you in that 17-foot range to keep him out of the lane where he’s most dangerous as a scorer and, more importantly, as a passer.
KenPom pegs the Wolverines as 68-67 favorites, giving them a 54% chance at earning the rivalry split. Any last-gasp chance at making the NCAA Tournament would hinge on Michigan putting together a 3-game winning streak and then stealing a road game the final week of the regular season. That would have to start on Saturday night against the Spartans.