By: Mike McCann
Last week was interesting in college hoops. Kansas lost its third straight game (before finally getting a win last night), Illinois beat Indiana, and Miami wrapped up a home sweep of North Carolina and Duke…by a combined fifty-two points. All three of those occurrences are rather normal for football season in the middle of October; however, they are quite odd for the beginning of February. They do seem peculiarly indicative of the kind of year it has been in college basketball. If you’re number one, expect to lose. If you’re in the Big Ten, you better win at home. Cue East Lansing.
Tonight just outside this state’s capital, the two major Michigan universities will represent good and evil to the opposition. Of course it’s been that way for some time, but the game hasn’t had these expectations since…ever. This evening will mark the first time in the history of this basketball rivalry that the two teams square off with both finding themselves in the top ten. The Wolverines are fourth, a number some feel is too high after losing two of their last three. The Spartans check in at eighth, a number some feel is too low for the way they have been playing lately. No matter which way your allegiance leans, expect a good one tonight at the Breslin Center.
Michigan has proven it is one of, if not the most talented team in America. The backcourt rivals that of the Charlotte Bobcats. But the Wolverines have stumbled lately, particularly away from their new palace in Ann Arbor. Indiana beat the Wolverines a week ago Saturday, but then Michigan rebounded. They beat Ohio State (just barely), but as time goes on, it’s becoming clearer that in the Big Ten, a win is a win. Michigan would have gladly taken a win Saturday in Madison, but they didn’t foul. I’ve heard it called a fluke, others say Wisconsin was lucky. You can dress it up however you like, but the Wolverines controlled the outcome of that game, and they did not win it. At the end of the day, it could end up as simply a blip on the radar. A win tonight will help.
Michigan State, on the other hand, has hit its stride. The Spartans have won nine of their last ten, with the lone loss in that stretch coming against top ranked Indiana, a game that most who cheer for the green and white feel they should have won. But like the Wolverines against Wisconsin, shoulda, coulda, woulda. The Spartans have found their leader in Keith Appling. The junior from Detroit has proven that he has the ability to put this team on his back and take over a game. He has improved his game tremendously from previous years, and has shown few signs of slowing down. However, his one bad game this year came in the Spartans biggest loss in Bloomington, when he managed only five points and fouled out.
Expect Appling to be a force tonight. He was the only Spartan to score in double figures in both games against the maize and blue a year ago, on a team that featured Draymond Green. For Michigan State, the key is inside. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix are a match-up problem for Michigan. The Wolverines could have a tough time with Payne’s athleticism and Nix’s strength. If Payne and Nix can play well, especially when they are on the floor together, I like Michigan State’s shot. Branden Dawson’s confidence will be through the roof, as he is coming off a twenty-point effort against Purdue, and Gary Harris is the only reason Michigan State was even in their loss at Indiana. The Michigan backcourt, while supremely talented, has struggled at times defensively, so expect Appling, Harris, and Dawson to get their looks. The Spartans must control this game from the inside to better their chances.
For Michigan, the key is simple. Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III must get off the bus ready to play. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke will be fine. They always are. Even though Hardaway Jr. managed only four points at Breslin last year, I don’t expect that to happen again. Flip a coin as to who has been Michigan’s better guard this season. Burke might seem like the logical choice, but don’t discount what Hardaway Jr. has done, he’s been sensational. And for the most part, so have Stauskas and GRIII; but not lately. The freshman duo has been noticeably absent in Michigan’s losses this year, and if they are absent again tonight, Michigan State could have its way. Stauskas averages just north of 12 ppg, with Robinson just a shade below at 11.3 a night. In Big Ten road games however, Stauskas has managed only 8.3 ppg, while Robinson has dipped to 7.5 ppg. Those numbers are not awful for true freshman. They seem low because of how good both Stauskas and Robinson III have been, at times. But in the three Michigan losses this year (all Big Ten games—all on the road), the two have combined for just twenty-nine points total. Stauskas has fifteen points in the three games, and Robinson has fourteen. I don’t think Michigan wins without Stauskas and Robinson at least getting close to normal productivity.
Injuries will play a factor in this game. Whether Jordan Morgan plays is critical for Michigan. They are much better with him, and in this environment they could really use his experience. The same goes for Travis Trice of the Spartans. Trice has a big time advantage over Michigan’s Spike Albrecht in the back-up point guard match-up, particularly in terms of experience. If he can’t go for MSU, it isn’t the end of the world, but it will hurt.
The hype is there. The rankings are there. The players are there. This game has all the ingredients to be one for the memory books. Expect the pace to be up-tempo. Michigan will want to run, and Michigan State will gladly oblige. If there is anything Tom Izzo has proven over the years, it’s that he’s not afraid to run with the big boys. These two teams do not like each other. It will be a physical battle. Like the week that just ended, this game could have a football feel to it.