This Saturday, Michigan State will square off with a surging Michigan team that is reinvigorated after Mitch McGary's exclusion from the lineup. The Spartans must focus on a few key areas of emphasis in order to gain sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
However, it will be challenging.
The contest will feature the two final conference unbeatens that are standing alone on top of the pedestal. And both squads have taken similar paths.
The in-state adversaries have played exceptionally well without their injured All-American caliber big men, with the versatility and skill of their respective backcourts fueling them to victories. The Spartans and Wolverines have won a combined 19 straight games.
But something’s got to give.
Recent trends in the matchup have tended to favor the home team, as they have prevailed in the last five matchups between the foes. But despite Tom Izzo’s fantastic track record against the maize and blue, it’s the Wolverines that are 4-2 in the series’ past six games.
The 21st-ranked Wolverines will be faced with the arduous task of containing a high-powered backcourt in Keith Appling and Gary Harris, which several of the Spartans’ previous opponents failed at doing. Conversely, Michigan State will battle a scorching Michigan team that has effectively turned around their season, led by a confident Nik Stauskas.
Sparty must focus on a few key areas in order to improve to 8-0 in the Big Ten. Here they are.
At the moment, there may not be a more confident player in the country than Nik Stauskas. The sophomore sharpshooter has upped his game since Mitch McGary’s withdrawal from the rotation due to back surgery, averaging nearly 19 points throughout that span.
The Spartans must plan to limit Stauskas’ open looks. However, that may be easier said than done, considering the Canadian’s immense improvement and recent scoring spree.
In the last three games, two against Top-10 nationally ranked teams, Stauskas has averaged over 23 points on 51.2 percent shooting.
So how must the Spartans guard him? After watching the Duke game, it was evident that the Blue Devils eliminated Stauskas from the flow of the game by face-guarding and becoming physical with the 205-pounder. They bumped him off his cuts, fought through screens and denied him the ball at every opportunity.
And it certainly worked. The 6’6” marksman was limited to only two shots and four points, all of which came from the free-throw line.
While it’s highly unlikely that Stauskas’ shooting night will be equally as dismal, the Spartans can certainly disrupt him with physical play.
Luckily for Sparty, Michigan State has capable defenders. Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine are quick, physically gifted players who can stick with Stauskas.
Collectively, Michigan State will need to be cognizant of where he is at all times.
Michigan relies heavily on their shooting and quickness to score, which often leaves four or five perimeter players on the floor.
While that potentially could create mismatch problems on the offensive side, it dooms the Wolverines on the rebounding front. That is what the Spartans must exploit.
Evidently, the Wolverines rank a lowly 278th in total rebounds per game, compared to the Spartans’ 33rd.
Michigan is devoid of a daunting post presence or rebounding machine, given the injury to Mitch McGary. The 6’8” Jordan Morgan and 6’10” Jon Horford will primarily handle the rebounding load, with the help of the athletic Glenn Robinson III.
But that isn’t the bulkiest bunch.
In three of Michigan’s four losses, they were outrebounded. Even in their road loss to Iowa State, they only recorded one more rebound than the Cyclones. And keep in mind that even those contests were with Mitch McGary’s services available.
If Adreian Payne, who is questionable for the game, plays, then Michigan State will have the clear advantage on the boards.
Michigan’s vast array of sharpshooters spreading the floor is a mismatch nightmare. While John Beilein’s offense isn’t as heavily predicated around three-point shooting as it once was, it is still a lethal weapon in the Wolverines’ offensive scheme.
As we saw in the Iowa game, Michigan struggled to find clean, open looks in the first half. The game went back and forth, but that was short-lived.
The second half was a different story. Michigan threatened to break the game open on multiple occasions after a barrage of three-pointers by Zak Irvin and Nik Stauskas, mixed with finishes in transition. The Wolverines capitalized on run-outs off of Iowa missed shots by pushing the ball and hitting open threes on the other end.
However, if the Spartans are disciplined with their close-outs and stay attentive to all shooters, then their likelihood of winning greatly increases. In three of the four Wolverines losses, opponents held them to 27.6 percent or lower on three-point shots.
Michigan State limits opponents to a solid 31 percent from three-point land, but they haven’t faced an attack that offers this many spot-up shooters.
This phase of the game could determine the victor.
At times, Michigan State’s offense has functioned as a well-oiled force, with a copious supply of balance and explosiveness to fuel the attack. However, at others, such as their last contest against Indiana, they were discombobulated and out of sync.
In the first half, Michigan State struggled to run smooth, efficient offense, which resulted in forced shots and turnovers.
But they changed that in the second half. Led by Gary Harris, the Spartans played with greater urgency and cohesiveness, which led to a 44-point outburst that sealed the victory.
Of all the words used to describe Tom Izzo’s teams, one that arises usually isn’t “inconsistency.” But lately, that’s what Michigan State has shown.
They will need to run offense like they did in the second half of the Indiana game in order to dissect a Michigan defense that only allows 63.7 points per contest.
Now without Brendan Dawson and likely Adreian Payne, Michigan State will especially have to beat the Wolverines with constant ball movement.
Injury wise, these Spartans just can’t catch a break. The ongoing issue has worsened with the news of Brendan Dawson’s broken hand, which will sideline the athletic junior forward up to five weeks.
Now, likely without All-Big Ten forward Adreian Payne and Dawson, the onus will be placed squarely on the shoulders of the talented backcourt mates, Keith Appling and Gary Harris.
Appling is undoubtedly having his best season as a Spartan in nearly ever facet of the game. Meanwhile, Harris has fought through injuries and a struggling jump shot, but his game seems to be coming around at the most opportune time. He will look to build on his recent hot streak of 23- and 24-points games.
Harris, averaging 18.3 points, and Appling, at 15.6 points per game, are certainly capable of producing points at a high rate. But they may have to eclipse their season marks with two integral parts of the offense potentially out of the lineup.
Ultimately, every key Spartan must contribute. However, without big-time performances from the two All-Big Ten guards, Michigan State may suffer their first conference loss.
The cards are certainly stacked against the Spartans.
But then again, they have been all season.