In the Big Ten, there’s simply no rest for the weary – or for the wounded. After dropping two of three supremely difficult challenges over the past week and a half, a stretch that included two road games and two top-10 matchups, Michigan takes to the road once again tonight (9pm on ESPN) to close out a brutal four-game stretch in East Lansing, where they face the surging Spartans.
Time and time again, it seems Tom Izzo’s hard-nosed squads project to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten throughout the non-conference season, then inevitably rebound by the time January rolls around to be right in the thick of things. This year is no different, as Michigan State actually leads the conference outright with a 9-2 mark after dropping two of their first eight games of the season.
For the first time since Magic Johnson was a freshman in this matchup, both teams enter the game ranked in the top 10 in the country. Who will have what it takes to pull it out? Here are a few keys to the game if Michigan is to have the answer:
1. Battle Down Low: Since Jordan Morgan injured his ankle early on in Columbus nearly one full month ago, Michigan has simply not been the same team on either end of the floor. The redshirt junior has never been one to put up big numbers, but his presence on the court, especially against big, physical teams down low, cannot go understated. Morgan, when healthy, is one of this team’s best rebounders and one-on-one defenders, and even though Mitch McGary has admirably boosted his level of play recently, Michigan needs Morgan to be healthy tonight. The fact of the matter is that all three of the Wolverines’ losses have come when Morgan played four or fewer minutes.
If Morgan is not healthy, which is still in question, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne could spell doom for Michigan. Those two big men combine to score nearly 19 points a game and grab 14 rebounds as well, and even though neither is incredibly consistent, Glenn Robinson III simply cannot match up defensively with either of them.
Perhaps most impressive about Izzo’s talented front court this year is the way in which they shoot free throws. Nix gets to the line more than any other Spartan besides Keith Appling and is making 73.6 percent of his attempts there while Payne leads the team in shooting 78.8 percent from the charity stripe. This could be the night where we see a starting lineup change for Michigan. McGary has to be almost a lock to start tonight, and Morgan would be a huge commodity if he can give John Beilein 20 minutes or so. With Branden Dawson also presenting a huge matchup problem for the Maize and Blue, Robinson III could be taken out of the starting lineup in favor of a true big man, whether that’s Morgan or Jon Horford.
2. Get the Freshmen Involved: Michigan’s tough stretch over the past three games has been well-documented, and while no team wants to play at Indiana, versus Ohio State, and at Wisconsin back-to-back-to-back, Michigan is simply experiencing the nature of the conference this season. Every Big Ten team is going through the meat grinder at some point, and if Michigan can pull out two of these four games, they will be in excellent position to compete for the conference title. If that is to happen, though, Michigan’s freshmen, particularly Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, need to elevate their games.
That duo was dynamite for Beilein throughout the non-conference portion of the schedule, but over the past two weeks, they have combined to average 14 points per game while shooting an ugly 33.3 percent from the floor. To put those numbers in perspective, on the season Stauskas and Robinson III both average more than 11 points per game and shoot better than 48 percent from the field. Yes, these two are freshmen, but they are key members of a nationally-contending team. When the going gets rough, no one gets a pass, whether veterans or newbies. Look for Trey Burke to get these two involved early and often by driving and kicking and utilizing the pick-and-roll to find open teammates. If Stauskas and Robinson III reach their season average, Michigan State has no chance of winning. If they struggle to put the ball in the hoop again, Michigan could get run out of East Lansing.
3. Exploit the Weakness: Tom Izzo’s teams usually have a general blueprint from year to year. They never shoot the ball extremely well but never shoot poorly enough to be a bottom-dweller, they always play solid, physical defense, and they rebound the ball. They also turn the ball over a lot. This year, the Spartans are turning the ball over a whopping 14 times per game, and all seven guys that see more than 20 minutes cough it up more than once a night. Michigan never forces turnovers at a high clip, but if they simply take advantage of the times Michigan State will hand the ball over, the fast break will be huge. Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. are lethally efficient running the floor, and a hot Stauskas could torch the Spartans with wide open shots from the outside. Michigan absolutely needs to run when presented the opportunity.
Furthermore, if there is one game to use the 1-3-1 defense in, it is tonight. Obviously this obscure zone has not been seen often since Beilein’s early years in Ann Arbor, but Michigan has the athletes to use the zone effectively, and with some of the matchup problems Michigan is facing, it wouldn’t be a bad time to try it to both slow Michigan State down on offense and force turnovers. Appling and freshman Gary Harris are the only major threats to score from downtown with Travis Trice out tonight, so if Michigan can stick on those guys in the zone, the home team could have difficulties generating offense against the 1-3-1.
Prediction: It seems that every game Michigan plays these days is vastly important, and with the huge rivalry piled on top of a top-10 battle tonight, this primetime matchup is no different. The winner of this game will be in tremendous fighting position for the conference championship, and with four of Michigan’s final six games coming at home, where they have lost just once since 2011, the Wolverines need to be ready. Tim Hardaway, Jr. has been rock solid for Michigan lately and needs to lead the way alongside Burke and company, and I think he will do just that. With Zack Novak reportedly scheduled to be in the house, look for Hardaway to drop 20 while Stauskas does his best Chesterton impression with four threes as Michigan grinds out a 70-66 win.