Michigan has faced a gauntlet of a schedule over its last few games and things don't get easier Tuesday on the road against MSU. This wraps up what is perhaps the toughest four game stretch in the country with road games against Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan State and a home game against Ohio State. The light is at the end of the tunnel and things get significantly easier after Tuesday night, but the Wolverines don't want to be caught looking ahead against one of its biggest rivals. The Spartans have won their last 3 games, 9 of their last 10, and 15 of their last 17 games. This has pushed them to #8 in the polls and 1st place in the Big Ten. If they beat Michigan on Tuesday night, they will be in the driver's seat for the conference title.
As usual, Izzo's Spartans are excellent at rebounding the basketball.
The Spartans: MSU features one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the Big Ten. They play good offense (#21 in KenPom), they play good defense (#18 in KenPom), and have shown they can do it against good competition (beat Kansas, OSU, Wis). This is a team that plays physical and imposes their will on opponents. The major way the Spartans get things done is through their dynamic frontcourt, which could very well be the best frontcourt in the Big Ten. Derrick Nix averages 9.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Adreian Payne averages 9.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Nix typically grabs the headlines like in his 25 point performance against Texas, but the player who really has the potential is Payne. He hasn't completely turned the corner yet, but his improvement and his 18 points on the road against Indiana are some clear signs of his talent.
Outside the frontcourt, MSU has several players with the ability to do damage. Branden Dawson gets a lot of minutes and averages 10.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.4 assists per game. He is probably MSU's most dynamic player and has the ability to do a lot of things for this team. He had a lot of hype coming into this year and though he hasn't completely lived up to it, he has been a big contributor for the Spartans, especially in his big performances on the road against Wisconsin and Iowa. Freshman Gary Harris has also been good since he arrived in East Lansing. He has the ability to do a bunch of things, but the major thing he has done for the Spartans this season is shoot outside the arch. He leads the team in 3 pt attempts and leads all Spartans with at least 20 attempts in 3 pt shooting percentage (42.6%). Guarding Harris on the outside will have to be a key part of Michigan's defensive game plan.
Finally, in the backcourt MSU has "RG3 reincarnated" and Denzel Valentine. Of course, the RG3 statement is a quote from coach Tom Izzo about point guard Keith Appling. Appling is a fantastic athlete and leads the team in minutes, points, and assists. However, his problem has been inconsistency. He plays great in one game, but is average in another and struggles with both turnovers and personal fouls. Essentially, when Appling is on, he's on (24 pts against Ill), but when he's not on, he really struggles (3 pts against IU). Valentine is pretty inexperienced, but is pretty good off the bench and has been getting a good amount of minutes lately. The one question mark for MSU will be Travis Trice, who has not played in the last two games and will likely be out against Michigan.
Keys To The Game: The biggest challenge for Michigan will be keeping the Spartan frontcourt in check. Not only in slowing down their scoring, but also in protecting the glass. MSU is known for being physical and fighting for rebounds. Michigan has held up pretty well against frontcourts like Minnesota, but MSU may be the most physical frontcourt they have seen all year. The status of Jordan Morgan is not yet known, but without him, Michigan is going to need to show that they can consistently defend Nix and Payne. If McGary doesn't play too aggressive and is able to box out, the Wolverines should be able to at least slow down MSU.
Not only does Michigan need to find a way to slow down MSU's frontcourt, but they also need to find a way to slow down Appling. It seems likely that Burke will be defending Appling and this will be a major defensive test for him. If he can get pressure on Appling and put him in bad situations, perhaps Appling has an off game. If Michigan can get him off his game, they have a great shot at getting the win. This is easier said than done of course, but it will be vitally important. Along with this, Burke is going to need to get around Appling, who is a pretty good defender. This will probably take some creative plays and another big night from Hardaway. Michigan should be able to keep this game close until the end, but it's going to be tough to pull out a win in the Breslin.
Players To Watch: Jon Horford is going to be one of the key pieces. He has struggled in his last few games and it's going to be important to see how he performs in this one. If he can defend in the paint and slow down Nix, he's probably going to get a good bit of playing time. Trey Burke will also be important for the reasons stated above. Along with this, he is going to need to provide leadership in a tough road environment, which is something that has plagued Michigan so far this season. The final player to watch fin this one is GR3. He has not been playing well lately and is going to have a huge challenge regardless of whether Michigan decides to go with a big or small lineup. He will be matched up with either Payne or Dawson and is going to have a major challenge on his hands both offensively and defensively. Michigan desperately needs him to have a big night.
Prediction: Michigan State by 2