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Preview: MSU men's basketball seeking bounce-back win against struggling Michigan

January 29, 2024
The MSU men’s basketball team huddle up before the start of the game against Hillsdale at the Breslin Center on Oct. 25, 2023. The Spartans defeated the Chargers 85-43.
The MSU men’s basketball team huddle up before the start of the game against Hillsdale at the Breslin Center on Oct. 25, 2023. The Spartans defeated the Chargers 85-43.

Last Friday night in Madison was an eye-opener for the Michigan State men’s basketball team, a preseason AP top five team that never found a real pulse or rhythm for 40 minutes of play against No. 6 Wisconsin in a game with major implications for MSU’s postseason résumé.

In their 81-66 defeat, the Spartans were trounced in two aspects critical to their identity: defense and rebounding. Wisconsin had its way on both ends – especially in the paint – and out-rebounded MSU by 10. It was nothing short of a setback for this MSU squad beginning to find its way in the Big Ten. 

The Badgers didn’t just control the Spartans on the boards; they seemed to come up with every loose ball. At his weekly press conference on Monday, MSU head coach Tom Izzo said Wisconsin dominating this battle made a big difference.

“A lot of the rebounds we’re not getting are loose-ball rebounds and that’s where guards got to gobble them up," Izzo said. "We’ve got to be in there to gobble them up. I think we’ve leaked out too much and I think that falls on me and my staff as much as it does the players.”

The Spartans, now 12-8 overall and 4-5 in conference play, have an even smaller margin of error for the remainder of the Big Ten season. But, if there’s a short-term fix for such an uninspiring performance in a key game, it’s turning around and getting the best of a heated rival just days later.

Michigan State welcomes the reeling Michigan Wolverines to the Breslin Center on Tuesday night, where the Spartans face a must-win scenario. The Maize and Blue, fresh off a College Football Playoff National Championship, is on par for its worst basketball season in over a decade. The Wolverines sit at a league-worst 2-7 in conference play and a measly 7-13 overall.

It’s been an odd season for Michigan, which Izzo thoroughly acknowledged. Head coach Juwan Howard missed extended time to begin the season after he underwent heart surgery in September. To make matters worse for the Wolverines, starting point guard and go-to-guy Dug McDaniel has been sidelined for six road games, including Tuesday night, for academic reasons.

Without McDaniel, the road to a win in East Lansing becomes even tougher for the Wolverines. However, it’s a heated rivalry, and they’ve hung around in many of their losses this season

“I don’t think [Michigan’s] record is really indicative of them," Izzo said. "It’s been a strange year for them with Juwan being out part of the year. I think they’ve also had the situation with their point guard (McDaniel) that you don’t get to see every day, not knowing all the circumstances.”

Tuesday night presents perhaps MSU’s best opportunity to put it together for 40 minutes, something the Spartans have struggled to do all season to this point. They held a 15-point lead in the first half at Maryland but had to grind out a win in the final seconds. They lost an eight-point lead on the road against then-No. 10 Illinois the week prior. 

For Izzo and his squad to make noise come March, Michigan State's consistency must be a point of emphasis, Izzo said

“We’ve had some great halves,” Izzo said. “We just haven’t had many great, full games and that’s what you need to do to win, especially to win on the road.”

Michigan can hurt its opponents greatly from beyond the arc, where Izzo said the Wolverines are dangerous. Michigan's guards are surrounded by big players that can stretch the floor with their shooting ability, posing a threat to MSU’s frontcourt that’s struggled to hold its own as of late. Nonetheless, the Spartans possess the more talented guards. The same was true against Wisconsin, but an off-night from MSU’s Tyson Walker proved costly. 

Simply winning on Tuesday night is not enough for the Spartans in their current state. For things to begin trending in the right direction again, MSU will need to gel for 40 minutes and clean up its rebounding struggles

“It’ll be about them, but it’s going to be about us too and how we play,” Izzo said. “I think defensively, we’ve got to ratchet it up another notch and I think rebounding better ratchet it up two notches.”

A glaring issue for MSU against Wisconsin was their lack of a post presence. Centers Mady Sissoko and Carson Cooper contribute in many ways, but not usually in the scoring column. The closest entity the Spartans have to a post threat is sophomore Jaxon Kohler, who missed the first two months of the season after he underwent foot surgery. He’s since been gradually worked back into the rotation, tallying a season-high six points at Wisconsin. 

The best version of this MSU team features an assertive Kohler, as it does a comfortable freshman Xavier Booker, who scored five points at the end of Friday’s game. Izzo’s made it clear that Booker is not physically ready for a major increase in his role, but he also said Booker’s put together a strong last three weeks of practice. He intends to incorporate both Kohler and Booker into the rotation more heavily. 

“We’re going to get Jaxon (Kohler) more and more time,” Izzo said. “I think we’re going to try and get Booker a little more time, but at the same time, put a little pressure on our guards. Our guys got to play better at both ends.”

Even in a down year for the Spartans-Wolverines basketball rivalry, there’s no doubt the Breslin Center will be filled to its brim with energy.

Tip-off between the Spartans and Wolverines is scheduled for 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30. The game is available exclusively on Peacock

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