PREVIEW: MSU and U-M square off in pivotal conference matchup
It has been a season of ups and downs for both the MSU Spartans (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) and the University of Michigan Wolverines (14-7, 4-4 Big Ten), but the rivals will meet Sunday afternoon for the first time this season in a must-win matchup for both teams.
Coming into the game, the Spartans will enter as victims of a three-game losing streak and having lost four of their last five. U-M, on the other hand, will come into the Breslin Center on a two-game win streak and fresh off a 90-60 home win over the Indiana Hoosiers at the Crisler Center.
For the freshman-laden Spartans, the rivalry between MSU and U-M might not be as intense as it has been in recent years, but Spartan head coach Tom Izzo said after the team's practice on Thursday the implications are still important for both teams.
"When you do play a rivalry there is a little more focus," Izzo said. "I don't know if there was more focus (during practice) today, but if there's anything we can learn to keep our guys focused a little bit longer, a little bit harder, with a little bit more energy is a good thing."
U-M will enter the game Sunday just edging out MSU as the third-best 3-point shooting team in the conference. Led by senior guards Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr., the Wolverines have built a rapport as a team that can live or die by the deep threat. Walton leads the team with the most triples, shooting 42.1 percent from 3-point range while Irvin and the rest of U-M head coach John Beilein's starting lineup are shooting more than 40 percent from the field.
"They have a great offense," freshman forward Miles Bridges said. "They're really hard to guard. They have really good 3-point shooters, good spot-up shooters, so we're really going to have bring our defense. ... We just have to pressure the ball, move our feet, don't get caught watching the ball. We have to stay focused for the whole 40 minutes."
The Wolverines will also enter the game with the fewest turnovers per game in the nation, averaging 9.2 a game, along with a Big Ten best 78.2 free-throw percentage. Beilein and Co., however, have still yet to win a conference game on the road this season.
Spartans looking to rebound
Izzo said the team held one of its best practices of the season Thursday after the team fell to Purdue Tuesday night. The Spartans have had issues as of late guarding shots from beyond the arc — during the team's three-game skid, opponents found the net on 46.5 percent of shots from 3-point range. Should the Spartans contain the Wolverines to low-perimeter shooting and establish an advantage in the post, junior point guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr. said he believes the chance could bode well for MSU.
"They're a very talented team," Nairn said. "They have a senior leader in Walton down there, Irvin, guys who have played together for three, four years now. They have talented freshmen, they're really well-coached down there. They have some size down there too, so they're a really good team."
Should the Spartans get a bounce-back performance from freshman forward Nick Ward and an encore of Bridges' 33-point game against the Boilermakers, it will be easier for the Spartans to establish a rebounding advantage on both sides of the floor. The Spartans will enter the game with a +2.8 rebound margin, while U-M's rebounding margin is -0.5 overall on the season and -4.2 in conference play. This could be the first game for the Spartans in nearly a month where a dominating post presence could return.
Having lost three games in a row, the Spartans are in dire need of a win — moreso than the Wolverines. It's not going to be easy for MSU, but a Spartan team that holds a marginal rebounding edge, at home and in desperation of a win could fare well against the likes of Walton, Irvin and other U-M shooters. The Wolverines shoot well from the three. MSU does not defend the three, or at least not in recent games, but if the Spartans can contest a hit-or-miss deep shooting team like U-M and win most battles in the paint, MSU should come out victorious by a narrow margin.
MSU 77, U-M 72