As far as debilitating losses go, Michigan’s 23-point setback against the Spartans in East Lansing was as low as the Wolverines have been all season.
Their offense was non-existent, often standing stagnant waiting for someone to make a cut while their defense simply couldn’t compete with the Spartans in the lane. Michigan State finished plus-14 with regard to points in the paint and had 12 more rebounds than the Wolverines, Michigan's biggest deficit of the season, according to ESPN.
In what was the first top-10 meeting between the schools in their 170-game series history, the Wolverines were stunned. Shocked by the spotlight, overwhelmed by the environment, the young Wolverines were vulnerable and helpless.
Michigan turned the ball over 16 times, shot just 39 percent from the field, and its normally reliable shooters, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, combined for 2-of-15 shooting with just six total rebounds.
In a word, it was shocking.
"We played like we had two pianos on our back," Beilein said to the Detroit Free Press this week, recalling the game. Here's a quick recap of the lobsided affair.
The silver lining of Michigan’s disastrous showing was that their trip to East Lansing marked the end of a grueling four-game stretch. The Wolverines had faced four teams currently ranked in the top-17 of the AP Poll, but managed just one win (Ohio State) over the 11-day span.
Now two games removed, the Wolverines have won two in a row. Its role players have started to settle nicely into Coach Beilein’s rotation, and Glenn Robinson III has had two-straight double-digit scoring efforts.
Conversely, the Spartans, who’ll travel to Ann Arbor as the ninth-ranked team in the country on Sunday, have suddenly hit the skids.
Skids? Or is it just the Big Ten this year?
The Spartans are currently in the midst of their version of the four-game gauntlet, having already lost two straight to Indiana and then on the road last Sunday to face the Buckeyes.
It’s the exact opposite scenario of what the Wolverines were facing when they traveled an hour west to face the Spartans. This time it’s on Michigan’s turf. This time it won’t have a crowd jeering air balls and applauding turnovers.
This time the Big Ten race is even more top-heavy with four teams within 1.5 games of each other, including both Michigan schools. The Wolverines, similar to Wisconsin and Michigan State, benefited from Indiana's loss on Tuesday night as Rod Beard pointed out.
So with the state rivalry, the conference race and postseason momentum all on the line, how demoralizing would another Wolverines loss potentially be?
The Spartans are exactly what the Wolverines are not. They have size down low, Michigan doesn’t. Izzo’s squad can be defensively suffocating. Beilein’s troops are prone to defensive lapses, especially on perimeter screens. The Spartans have March experience (Sweet 16 last year) while Michigan doesn’t (upset in first round vs. Ohio). But perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams is style.
The Wolverines like to run in transition and thrive on outlet passes to Burke, whereas the Spartans typically operate out of halfcourt sets. Why is this important?
Because if the Spartans should handle Michigan (in dominating or in less convincing fashion) again on its homecourt, it gives other teams a blueprint of how to handle the Wolverines’ up-tempo style in March.
Take a look at Michigan’s losses this season. Three of the four (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) came against halfcourt style teams who forced the Wolverines to adjust their pace. The other loss came against the best team in the country on the road.
More concrete, though, is that a Wolverines loss could jeopardize Michigan’s chances at a top-four finish in the Big Ten, which guarantees a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Ohio State, currently in fifth place, sits at 10-5 in conference play, just a half-game back of the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes finish with games at Northwestern and at Indiana before wrapping up the season against Illinois. The Wolverines, aside from hosting the Spartans on Sunday, still have two road games against Penn State and Purdue and a regular season finale against Indiana.
A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament could also be on the line come Sunday. CBS has the Wolverines as one of the four top seeds while USA Today has the Spartans projected as a No. 1 seed as well. Needless to say, Sunday’s game carries massive implications.
It’s probably a good thing that the Wolverines have a game on Wednesday night against a hungry Penn State, eager to notch its first conference win. That should help keep the focus on the task at hand instead of letting its players brood about a re-match on Sunday.
But once the Penn State game is over, the focus turns to the Spartans, who need to halt their losing streak as much as the Wolverines need to maintain their current winning one.