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Know Thy Enemy: Michigan State looks to upset the top dog in the Big Ten in No. 4 Michigan

February 10, 2022
<p>Freshman Matilda Ekh looks for a passing outlet at the Breslin Center on Nov. 16, 2021. Michigan State women&#x27;s basketball took down Valparaiso 73-62, as Head Coach Suzy Merchant claimed her 500th win.</p>

Freshman Matilda Ekh looks for a passing outlet at the Breslin Center on Nov. 16, 2021. Michigan State women's basketball took down Valparaiso 73-62, as Head Coach Suzy Merchant claimed her 500th win.

Know Thy Enemy is a Q&A where the perspective changes from the eyes of The State News to the eyes of the student newspaper of Michigan State's opponent. This week, The State News' women's basketball beat writer Sara Tidwell spoke with Jack Glanville of The Michigan Daily ahead of Thursday’s U-M and MSU rivalry game.

It's that point in the basketball season that residents in the state of Michigan relish. Spartan fans celebrated a spooktacular 37-33 football comeback in October 2021 and a strong 83-67 men's hoops performance more recently on Jan. 29.

Now, it's the ladies' turn.

The Michigan women's basketball team is coming to town and this time not only are they ranked No. 4 in the nation, but they're also No. 1 in the Big Ten and on an 8-0 winning streak after outlasting No. 21 Iowa to get to win number 20 for the ninth time in just ten years under U-M Head Coach Kim Barnes Arico.

According to ESPN's Charlie Creme, Michigan is predicted to be a No. 2 seed against Fairfield, a No. 15 seed, in their home city of Ann Arbor.

It's going to be a brutal one for Michigan State, that's for sure. The Spartans are 12-10 overall and 6-5 in conference.

The Wolverines are 20-2 overall and 11-1 in conference. The game is set for 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on Big Ten Network.

This week, The State News' women's basketball beat writer Sara Tidwell spoke with Jack Glanville of The Michigan Daily ahead of the Spartans' matchup with the Wolverines.

Q: At No. 1 in-conference and No. 4 overall, what has U-M been doing well? What have they been struggling with, if anything? Biggest strengths and weaknesses?

A: Michigan thrives in the paint. They’ve been outrebounding and outscoring teams in the paint by a wide margin almost every single game. While some of this has to do with senior forward Naz Hillmon playing exceptionally well, everyone contributes. The high-low game between senior forward Emily Kiser and Hillmon gives defenses fits. On the glass, Hillmon and Kiser grab their fair share of rebounds, but the guards have been productive as well.

Michigan’s biggest weakness is probably ball security. The team has struggled when facing a full-court trap or press over the course of season, especially if they aren’t expecting it. After a few possessions, they normally adapt and figure out how to break the press. Additionally, when the offense stagnates, Michigan’s guards will occasionally force passes to Hillmon in the post. As the season has progressed, this has occurred less frequently. 

The final thing is three-point shooting. While Michigan has some great three-point shooters, like junior guard Maddie Nolan, the shooting has fluctuated. The three-point shooting has been inconsistent.

Q: The Wolverines were missing one of their best, senior wing Leigha Brown, against Iowa. But, that didn't seem to matter. In light of her being benched, who stepped up? I see The Daily wrote a story about their talents running deep and how their bench has only made them stronger. I also see they have a dependable freshman in Laila Phelia, much like MSU does in Matilda Ekh.

A: Freshman guard Laila Phelia stepped up against Iowa. She picked up Brown’s scoring load — posting a career-high 24 points. Phelia also played exceptional defense on Iowa sophomore Caitlin Clark. That isn’t something that’s normally said when someone has 46 points dropped on them, but Phelia stayed in front of Clark most possessions. A lot of Clark’s points came off wild three pointers and step-backs late in the game.

Typically, Hillmon and senior guard Leigha Brown are the two biggest offensive forces for the Wolverines. Nolan occasionally has a big game when she gets in space behind the arc. Kiser can exploit mismatches, as typically opposing teams put their best interior defender on Hillmon. Senior guard Danielle Rauch has grown into her role as the starting point guard, and looks more confident running the offense each game.

No one else is currently missing, and it’s unclear if Brown is going to play Thursday. She’s currently day-to-day with a left lower leg injury. Brown being out hurts. She’s capable of creating her own shot on the perimeter, and especially in the mid-range, something the rest of the roster struggles with.

Shout out to Abbie Telgenhof for writing about the depth, that was a great article. Phelia has been a great scorer off the bench. Senior guard Amy Dilk — who was the starter until her injury early in the season — provides composure and experience as the backup point guard. Sophomore forward Cameron Williams has really grown as a scorer over the course of the season, grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring in the paint at ease. Wrapping up the rotation is sophomore guard/forward Elise Stuck. Stuck brings energy. She’s frequently diving for loose balls and drawing charges.

Q: What does U-M need to do to not fall victim to this machine, like Nebraska did on Dec. 30, 2021 and overcome a potentially large fourth quarter, like they did against Iowa last weekend?

A: Once Michigan gets a lead, they typically don’t let it go. It took a performance from Clark that Barnes Arico called, “pretty ridiculous,” to get Iowa back in the game. But, Michigan State has excelled in the fourth quarter. To not fall victim to the Spartan’s comeback tendencies, Michigan can’t let their foot off the gas — which hasn’t been a problem — and hope Clouden doesn’t start hitting 35-footers. 

In all seriousness, Clouden could pose some difficulties for the Wolverine defense, as they are better at defending the paint than the perimeter. Good players find a way to make good plays, and Clouden has proven she’s a good player. If Michigan can keep her in check, they should get an early lead and have no problem keeping it.

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Q: What is your score prediction and why?

A: I think Michigan’s going to leave East Lansing with the win, 72-56. Michigan State’s strength is in the guard position, so I think Michigan’s control of the glass and paint is going to flourish against the Spartans. Also, I don’t think Michigan State has the capacities to slow down Hillmon on the offensive end. However, with Michigan State having a strong backcourt, they’re going to find ways to score and keep it relatively close. Home court could play a role as well, but at the end of the day, Michigan has proven they’re an elite team and I expect them to prove it again on Thursday.

Q: We’re down to the final 5 games of the regular season. When you look ahead at the tournament season, how far do you think Michigan will go? They obviously have the Big Ten title in the palm of their hand, but what about the NCAA tournament? What’s your prediction and why?

A: I think Michigan’s going to win the Big Ten regular season, for all the reasons listed here.

Getting into the Big Ten tournament, it becomes more unclear. If Indiana has junior forward Mackenzie Holmes back, they have a great shot at winning the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa and Clark can catch fire on any given night, so there’s always a shot that they find a way to win the tournament. If I had to pick a winner of the Big Ten Tournament, though, I would pick Michigan.

When it comes to the NCAA Tournament, I go back and forth between a Final Four and an Elite Eight appearance. The Wolverines shouldn’t have a problem getting to the Sweet Sixteen with their domination in the paint. And if three-point shots are falling, Michigan can hang with anyone. This leads me to believe that the Elite Eight is a huge possibility. But, the three-point shooting hasn’t been a very reliable form of scoring. That could be the downfall of the Wolverines as they progress further and further into the tournament. I guess I’ll make up my mind and say Elite Eight — final answer. 


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