Monday, November 29, 2021

Know Thy Enemy: Regular season to close with back-to-back action against Michigan

March 4, 2021
<p>Redshirt senior forward Kyle Ahrens (0) fights for a loose ball during the game against Michigan Feb. 8, 2020 at the Crisler Center. The Spartans fell to the Wolverines, 77-68.</p>

Redshirt senior forward Kyle Ahrens (0) fights for a loose ball during the game against Michigan Feb. 8, 2020 at the Crisler Center. The Spartans fell to the Wolverines, 77-68.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Know Thy Enemy is a weekly Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State basketball's opponent. This weekend State News beat writers Sara Tidwell and Jayna Bardahl spoke with Teddy Gutkin of The Michigan Daily ahead of Sunday's game between U-M and MSU.

They're in the fight of their lives right now, hanging on by their fingernails as the end of the regular season grows nearer. Michigan State men's basketball has back-to-back matchups against in-state rival No. 2 Michigan. They will put it in park in Ann Arbor for 7 p.m. tip-off on Thursday, before returning home for one last hurrah at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

The Spartans enter the matchup at 8-10 in conference play and 14-10 overall.

This weekend State News sports reporters Sara Tidwell and Jayna Bardahl spoke with Teddy Gutkin of The Michigan Daily ahead of the Spartans' matchup with the Wolverines.

Q: With an overall record of 18-2, what are Michigan’s strong suits? Weaknesses? How are they looking with the regular season coming to a close soon?

A: Michigan's biggest strong suit is the variety of ways they can beat you. Whether it's freshman center Hunter Dickinson lighting opponents up in the paint, senior forward Isaiah Livers hitting threes on the perimeter, or sophomore wing Franz Wagner attacking the basket at will, the Wolverines have a plethora of offensive weapons, and each is a threat to take over a game any given night. Michigan's defense might be even better, allowing just 65.2 points per game. Led by senior guard Eli Brooks, this unit is one of the most dangerous in the nation, averaging 4.74 blocks and 4.5 steals per game. With a deadly offense and a stingy defense, the Wolverines have proven to be the team to beat in the Big Ten, and potentially the nation. There are very few weaknesses on this team, with the exception of depth at the center position. When Dickinson has been in foul trouble, senior center Austin Davis has certainly struggled to defend in the post, while junior forward Brandon Johns, Jr. has been inconsistent. If Dickinson can get in foul trouble early, that may be a team's best shot at stringing together a run.

Q: The last time the Spartans traveled to Ann Arbor, MSU struggled to connect shots and ultimately fell 77-68. As a sophomore at the time, Aaron Henry was one of MSU’s only bright spots. What does Michigan’s defense need to do to shut down the Spartan offense once again?

A: The key to shutting down Aaron Henry lies in his matchup, Eli Brooks. Nicknamed "The Professor," Brooks often knows every detail down to dotting his I's and crossing his T's, morphing into a contender for the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award while shutting down the likes of Minnesota's Marcus Carr and Wisconsin's D'Mitrik Trice. Brooks is the key to the Wolverines' defensive success, and with Henry's recent hot streak this will undoubtedly be the matchup to watch on Thursday.

Q: Who are Michigan’s team leaders and how much are they relied on? Who else is emerging into the spotlight that could cause problems for the Spartans?

A: I've touched a little on some of Michigan's big pieces and what they bring to the table, but one guy who flies under the radar to keep an eye on is graduate transfer guard Mike Smith. After averaging 22.8 points per game at Columbia, Smith has taken more of a passive role since transferring to Ann Arbor, leading the Big Ten with 5.2 assists per game. He's still a threat to score in bunches, though, averaging 8.7 points per game and shooting 47.8% from 3-point land. While he might not be the marquee name, Smith is the man who helps the Wolverines' offense play like a well-oiled machine.

Q: What is your score prediction and why?

A: I think this game will be a lot closer than some people may expect. In a rivalry game and with the Spartans playing for their tournament lives, I think we're going to see a really tight battle in Ann Arbor on Thursday night. That being said, with this being Michigan's senior night and a Big Ten regular-season title potentially being able to be clinched, I think the Wolverines end up taking this one 79-72.

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