2023-24 Season

Game 21: Michigan at Michigan State Preview

Michigan heads on the road tonight (9:00 p.m., Peacock) to face Michigan State at the Breslin Center. The Wolverines and Spartans have split their rivalry matchups home and away throughout Juwan Howard’s tenure in Ann Arbor, and Michigan hasn’t won in East Lansing since March 3rd, 2018, when Moritz Wagner scored 27 points.

Both programs feel a long way from where they were back then, consistently ranked in the top ten nationally and competing for league titles and Final Fours. Instead, Michigan’s program is in disarray and headed for its worst season in over a decade. Michigan State’s program is healthier, but “the best eight-loss team in college basketball” is far from the preseason top five where the year began.

The most obvious parallel is the 2011 matchup, which occurred almost 13 years ago to the day when Michigan, riding a six-game losing streak, went to the Breslin Center and beat a Michigan State team struggling to live up to expectations. That Michigan team didn’t have a suspended point guard, and this Michigan State team doesn’t appear to be quite as dysfunctional, which could mean a long night for the Wolverines in East Lansing.

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The Spartans

Michigan State’s statistical profile is impressively balanced without many obvious weaknesses or positive outliers. The Spartans are ranked 34th in adjusted offense and 21st in adjusted defense, one of just three teams in the conference to rank in the top 40 in offense and defense. On the other hand, they are basically playing even basketball in Big Ten games, scoring 1.08 points per trip (7th) and allowing 1.07 points per trip (7th).

It’s not hard to spot the statistical divergence in Michigan State’s KenPom history page to figure out why Tom Izzo’s program has been closer to a bubble team than a protected seed over the last four seasons: 2-point shooting. Izzo’s best teams are almost always ranked in the top 50 nationally in 2-point shooting, but his recent ones haven’t. The Spartans are shooting 52% on twos (117th) this year after finishing 269th, 184th, and 241st over the previous three seasons.

In Big Ten games, the Spartans are shooting 47.7% inside the arc, the third-worst in the conference. Michigan State is 11-1 when it hits 49% or better on twos, compared to 2-7 when it shoots worse than that inside the arc.

This MSU team is also ranked outside the top 100 in offensive (147th) and defensive (174th) rebounding. 174th would be the worst finish in defensive rebounding rate for the Spartans in the KenPom era (1997-onward), and the program has only finished outside the top 100 four times (2008, 2021, and 2022).

Turnovers and transition offense are synonymous with Tom Izzo, but the two most recent MSU teams have slowed down and stopped turning it over. Michigan State is ranked 12th in the Big Ten in possessions per game and third in offensive turnover rate.

The Spartans will still push the ball when the opportunity presents itself — most recently, they scored 23 transition points in a crucial win at Maryland — but the transition attack lacks some of the teeth that Izzo’s teams have historically presented. Of course, Michigan’s defense gave up 22 points in transition at home to Iowa over the weekend, so teeth might not be required to attack the Wolverines in transition.

Michigan State isn’t as infamous for it as Indiana, but few teams are out-attempted from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Spartans. MSU attempts 31.4% of its shots from 3-point range (315th), while its opponents attempt 42.3% of their shots from deep (320th).

Defensively, Michigan State can be suffocating on its best nights. The Spartans are ranked in the top 50 in 2-point and 3-point defense for a 46.5 eFG% allowed (38th) and force turnovers more aggressively than any Michigan State team over the last decade. The lineup is heavy on guards, but all of them can guard multiple spots and contain the dribble. Michigan State’s centers aren’t explosive offensively but bring size and length to the paint defense.

The Spartans are also significantly better defensively on their home floor. According to Bart Torvik, the MSU defense is ranked 14th in adjusted efficiency playing at home compared to 93rd when it heads on the road. Playing at home against a Michigan team without its point guard should be a significant advantage.


6-foot-1 super senior Tyson Walker is one of the best scoring guards in the country. Walker is a tough cover because he’s capable of creating his own shot off the dribble, but he’s multi-dimensional and can do much more than that. Michigan State also uses him off the ball, where he’s lethally effective running off of screens. He shoots 42.9% on catch-and-shoot jumpers (58.2 eFG%) and 36.4% on pull-ups (42.6 eFG%). His runner isn’t particularly accurate (4-of-18), but his finishing craft is off the charts, given his size and frame; he shoots 67% at the rim.

Super senior forward Malik Hall has been up-and-down with his perimeter jumper this year, but he’s emerged as Michigan State’s go-to offensive option outside of Walker. Hall grades out in the 90th percentile as a post-up creator, and Michigan State looks to isolate him against power forward mismatches whenever possible. Hall drives to his right almost three times as often as his left, and in the post, he is most effective when he goes to his left shoulder (71%).

Hall is shooting 35% on catch-and-shoot attempts (50 eFG%) but has seemed hesitant with his shot at different points throughout the season. Just 23% of his shot attempts have been threes this year, down from 30% last year. He’s been accurate of late, making 7 of his previous 13 attempts from deep and hitting at least one triple in four consecutive games.

Senior point guard AJ Hoggard is one of the more enigmatic players in the conference. Hoggard is a gifted passer with great size who has cut down on his turnovers each year. He makes his free throws and is a willing defender. But for whatever reason, he hasn’t been able to put everything together consistently this year in East Lansing. The lack of a jumper is a big part of those struggles. Hoggard can stick the open catch-and-shoot attempt (38%, 57.1 eFG%), usually when left open, but he’s 5-of-33 for the year on off-the-dribble jumpers from any distance.

His off-the-dribble scoring package almost relies entirely on forcing his way to the basket or scoring with a floater in the five to eight-foot range.

The oddity of this MSU roster is the lack of a proper wing. 6-foot-4 junior Jaden Akins has filled that role for the most part. Akins is a volume shooter (50% of shot attempts are threes) who shot 42% from deep last year but checks in at 36% this year. He has multi-three upside, but he’s been inconsistent this year, shooting 29% in November, 43% in December, and 36% in January.

The alternative to Akins is 6-foot-2 junior Tre Holloman, who backs up the 1, 2, and 3 for all intents and purposes. Holloman is a bit like the world’s smallest three-and-D wing. Most of his scoring comes from three, where he shoots 43%. For the year, he scored 69 points on catch-and-shoot jumpers compared to 2 out of ball screens. He’s an active defender who can guard multiple spots and makes smart passes while never turning it over.

Michigan State leans on the same trio of centers we’ve become familiar with over the last few seasons. The group can hold its own defensively and on the glass, but the offensive upside is limited. 6-foot-9 senior Mady Sissoko is one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten — 3rd in offensive rebounding, 1st in defensive rebounding — but he’s shooting just 46% on twos in Big Ten games despite primarily catch-and-finish opportunities.

6-foot-11 sophomore Carson Cooper can move better but is also limited offensively. He’s 1-of-7 from the floor on post-up shots this year and shoots 54% from two.

6-foot-6 sophomore Jaxon Kohler is a smaller, less athletic, and more skilled option who missed most of the season due to injury. He’s been back for six games and saw a season-high 14 minutes at Wisconsin.

6-foot-5 freshman Coen Carr has played between 7 and 12 minutes per game over the last six contests. He’s one of the very best athletes in college basketball, but he’s not a shooter. He’s only attempted five jump shots of any variety this year and shoots 57% at the line. Despite his weaknesses, Carr is absolutely capable of a thunderous highlight dunk that sends the Breslin into a frenzy and turns a 15-point game into a 25-point blowout.

The scouting report on five-star freshman Xavier Booker coming out of high school was that he might need time to adjust to the college game, and that’s proven accurate. Booker has logged 32 minutes in Michigan State’s nine Big Ten games. He’s a long, rangy player who can shoot the three (9-of-26 on the year) but is one the outside looking in from MSU’s rotation.


  • Nkamhoua/Hall matchup: Any path to Michigan being competitive in this game hinges on Nkamhoua winning this head-to-head battle outright. Both teams will try to play through their four-man, and I’d expect them to be content to let their four-man defend their opposition one-on-one. For his part, Nkamhoua has been an excellent addition to Michigan — the idea of this team without him is almost unimaginable — while also struggling in a few notable head-to-head matchups.
  • McDaniel-less offense: Michigan has been held under a point per possession four times this year. Two games were at Atlantis, and two were road games played without Dug McDaniel: .88 PPP at Maryland and .96 PPP at Purdue. Given the lack of perimeter shot creation on the active road roster, it’s tough to see any path to scoring above that mark. It would be a great investment if you could parlay Michigan scoring under a point per possession over the next four road games.
  • Play any form of defense: Over the last three games, Michigan has allowed 275 points in 209 possessions — that’s 1.31 points per trip. Before this year, Michigan hadn’t allowed 1.31 PPP in a game since January 2018 at Purdue. To allow that sort of offensive production in aggregate over a three-game span is a damning indictment that the wheels have come off completely. Transition defense, ball screen defense, off-ball defense, closing out on shooters, defensive rebounding- the list of necessary defensive improvements is very long.

Bottom Line

KenPom sets the number at Michigan State 78, Michigan 67 with a 17% chance for a road upset. At this point, keeping the final margin respectable would feel like a small win because it is almost impossible to see this group competing on the road at Michigan State without Dug McDaniel.

The Wolverines suffered their worst loss in 22 years last week at Purdue, and there’s little doubt that Michigan State will aim to find its way onto that list of worst road defeats.

Notable Replies

  1. mgl

    Just out of curiousity, what do you make of Izzo’s decision to become less TO tolerant offensively? It seems like it’s almost perfectly correlated with their offensive decline (obviously it’s not the entire story, but completely changing how they play seems impactful), and obviously turning it over is bad, but they were churning out really good offenses reliably despite the turnovers.

    It almost seems like they had that one genuinely bad team in 2021 that notably didn’t have a point guard (Foster Loyer and Rocket Watts) that turned it over AND failed to score and they seemed to chalk it up to play-style and not personnel.

  2. umhoops

    I think it is mostly a Tyson Walker thing. I don’t think he thrived in the uptempo style, and I think he’s by far the best player on the roster.

    There’s also just not a ton of depth or athleticism or reliable bigs on these rosters compared to MSU’s standard.

    MSU can still run, too. I’d expect 20+ transition points tonight just based on Michigan’s weaknesses.

  3. Nick

    Only path I see for Michigan is Reed dominating Sissoko/Cooper. No real reason to think it will happen given how poorly Tarris has played this year. But I think I would give him a lot of post touches anyways and hope for the best.

  4. umhoops

    Not sure that posting up Tarris should ever be an answer. It’s something that’ll happen, but you aren’t winning games through Tarris post ups.

    The path is Nkamhoua dominating Hall IMO. On both ends of the floor. Hall is a really good two-way player though, so that isn’t particularly easy.

    Think you beat MSU’s fives by making them move a bit … Without great guard play that is really hard to do.

  5. mgl

    real “resistable force vs. moveable object” hours here

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