Three weeks ago, the Michigan Wolverines travelled to East Lansing for what was supposed to be the biggest game in the history of this in-state rivalry. Both teams were in a battle for first place in the Big Ten, bragging rights were on the line, and the winner would certainly gain all the more traction when it comes to seeding for the Big Dance. Unfortunately, viewers tuning in from around the country in the hopes of a scintillating matchup were left wondering if they had watched the right game after Michigan State took Michigan to the woodshed, dominating the Wolverines in all facets of the game.
Since then, both teams have had their hiccups, however, with Michigan losing to Penn State last Wednesday and the Spartans coming off consecutive losses for the first time all season. If any game could be more important than that blowout in East Lansing, it’s today’s showdown (4pm on CBS) at the Crisler Center. The Big Ten title might be out of reach for both teams now, but seeding for both the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament are vastly important. Here are three keys for Michigan if they hope to bounce back:
- Mix it up on D: In the first tussle between these teams, Michigan State scored at will from anywhere on the floor, with Gary Harris pouring in five threes and the rest of the team combining to shoot nearly 55 percent from inside the arc. For Michigan, the defense has been lacking all season long, and it certainly has not improved recently, as Penn State put up a ridiculous 84 points on the Wolverines on Wednesday. Michigan State is going to try to bully around Michigan’s smaller lineup in the post again and will start both Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne.
- To counter, watch for Michigan to throw a variety of looks at Tom Izzo’s squad in the hopes of causing some confusion and perhaps turning Michigan State over, which they are susceptible to at times. At this point, Michigan would be hard-pressed to play worse defense than their man-to-man outfit has been recently, and I expect to see some 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone series. Against Illinois, Michigan was decently successful playing a hyper-aggressive trapping man defense on certain possessions, forcing the Illini out to half court a number of times with double teams, so that is an option to throw out as well. In the post, the Wolverines would again be wise to double team Nix and Payne, particularly forcing Nix over his left shoulder, and rotate when the ball is passed out to the perimeter. Overall, Michigan simply needs to move their feet quickly, cut off the drive, and cover the open man. Easier said than done, but doable.
- Protect the Rock: Uncharacteristically for a John Beilein-coached team, Michigan has had some turnover issues of their own in recent losses, coughing the ball up a combined 31 times in the losses to MSU and PSU. Both teams feasted off the Wolverines’ sloppy play and were able to control the flow of the game throughout. Today, Michigan needs to run their offense and make smart decisions at all times. At times, it seems that Michigan is rushing everything too much, especially on the road, and needs to calm down. If a look isn’t there, give the ball to Trey Burke and set the offense back up. When the fast break is open, run, but when the Spartans are back on defense and playing physical, protect the ball, drive, kick to the open man, or draw a foul.
- Get Everyone Involved: Michigan is at its best when Trey Burke is not the only player who shows up, as evidenced by the first game in this series. Tim Hardaway, Jr. has been in a bit of a funk lately, and all of the freshmen have hit bumps in the road at one time or another. Burke can and will score his points, but if shots aren’t falling for the wings and the posts aren’t mixing it up inside, it could be a very long day again for the Maize and Blue. The freshmen are young, but they need to play composed in huge games like this if Michigan is going to make a run at any point in the postseason. Look for Burke to get it going early on but then drop some dimes to Hardaway and Stauskas from downtown and Robinson III over the top of the defense. If three or four Wolverines reach double digits, they should win the game. The good news for Michigan is that Michigan State is struggling with the same issue, as Keith Appling has gone ice cold lately and the surrounding cast has been inconsistent at best. The team with more double digit scorers today wins.
Prediction: Much like the first matchup between these rivals, I really don’t know which way this game will fall, and that could be a very bad indication today. For some reason though, I think Michigan will turn the bad publicity into positive energy and stay undefeated at home. Winning on the road is very difficult in the Big Ten, and both these teams are well aware of that this year. The Wolverines need to protect home court today if they want to stay in the mix for a top seed in both postseason tournaments, and I expect them to do that today. Burke leads the way with 20 and 10 assists while Mitch McGary bounces back in a big way on the glass and four Wolverines reach double figures in a 71-62 win.