Photo: Detroit News
Michigan led for the entire game but I never felt comfortable. Now the regular season is over the Wolverines not only swept Michigan State for the first time since 1997, they are 19-12 (9-9) with a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out what happened. This team was picked 10th or 11th in the league and three months ago I was worrying whether they could beat teams like Harvard and Oakland at home. A month ago I was trying to judge whether Michigan could rebound from a 1-7 stretch to finish the season on a positive note. Now, I’m trying to decipher RPIs and bubble resumes to figure out whether Michigan is actually an NCAA Tournament team.
This game was a grind and was exactly the sort of game that fans have come to expect in this rivalry. Hard defense combined with physical and emotional play leading average offensive performances. Like most close games, this one boiled down to four or five key possessions. The only difference between this game and recent Michigan State games was that it was Michigan that made the winning plays down the stretch. The Wolverines took punch after punch and never folded.
The Wolverine offense scored 1.08 points per trip with an effective field goal percentage of just 47% – 52% on twos and 26% on threes. For all of the talk about “systems”, it was actually Michigan State that attempted and made more three pointers in this game. It was Michigan that scored more points in the paint (26-20), in transition (6-2), and off of turnovers (13-8). The Wolverines got to the line more often than they have in any game this season besides Indiana and did a reasonable job of making the freebies, connecting on 23 of 31 (74%). Michigan turned the ball over just 6 times all game for a season low 9.2% turnover rate.
Michigan earned this win on the defensive end of the court. The Spartans scored just .97 points per trip and had to work for every basket. Michigan was physical and did everything within their power to force Michigan State to take difficult and contested shots. Michigan State posted an effective field goal percentage of just 39% – 31% on twos and 36% on threes. I’m not sure when the last time Michigan held any team to 31% two point shooting, nonetheless Michigan State. Kalin Lucas made his fair share of brilliant plays but he also had to take 19 shots to get to 25 points. Draymond Green (7 points on 14 shots) and Durrell Summers (13 points on 14 shots) were defended very well. Keith Appling buried a handful of open looks for 10 first half points but only attempted one shot and didn’t score in the second. Similar to the first meeting, Michigan State was unable to get production from their bigs as Nix and Payne barely played and Roe and Sherman combined for 8 points on 3 of 3 shooting. The game was close because the Spartans rebounded 38% of their missed shots. Michigan was actually doing a pretty good job on the defensive glass before Michigan State grabbed six offensive rebounds in the final 4:30 of play.
The most encouraging part of this game is that Michigan didn’t play its best, but was still able to gut out a victory. It was far from perfect but these are the games that good teams win, and also the games that Michigan wasn’t winning earlier this season. When Michigan won in East Lansing it was because they shot the ball as well as they have all season. This win was because Michigan was the tougher team. A team that was good enough to not just win, but lead for 40 minutes, despite a lackluster offensive performance.
Michigan didn’t lock up a bid but they are certainly in a pretty good spot. The Wolverines are locked into the 4/5 game on at 2:30 PM on Friday against Illinois. Winning that game would give Michigan a fourth top 50 win and likely punch Michigan’s ticket. Lose that game and Michigan will have sweaty palms on Sunday. Making the tournament in that situation wouldn’t be impossible but it’d be far from a lock and would likely mean to a trip to the First Four in Dayton.
- Tim Hardaway Jr.: Hardaway is blossoming into a special player before our eyes. After being held scoreless in the first half, it was obvious that Hardaway was going to get more shots in the second. The only question was what he would make out of them. Hardaway finished the game with 20 points (all in the 2nd) on 6 of 13 (2-6 3pt) shooting with three assists. He scored in a myriad of ways and played with great emotion. While Lucas carried Michigan State, Hardaway matched his efforts and carried Michigan just a little bit further.
- Evan Smotrycz: Smotrycz was phenomenal and gave Michigan an incredible boost off of the bench. He was one of the few Michigan players that finished well in transition and he had 14 points on 4 of 6 (1-2 3pt) shooting in just 21 minutes. Three steals and a block, as well as 5 for 5 at the free throw line, go a long ways toward making up for zero rebounds. You need a big performance from a role player at home and Smotrycz provided it.
- Darius Morris: Morris was playing sick and it showed. He finished with 13 points on 3 of 11 shooting but did hand out six assists and grab five rebounds. Michigan State played way off of Morris, daring him to shoot, and he settled for a couple of silly shots but still made a number of big plays and rarely tried to do too much. Morris also did a great job of not only getting to the line but finishing at the stripe, connecting on 7 of 8 free throw attempts.
- Zack Novak: Novak didn’t have a great day from the field, 1 of 6 (1-4 3pt) or even on the glass (3 DR) but he did make 5 of 7 free throws and hand out a pair of assists. Novak’s most important contribution to the game was on the defensive end of the court. He did a phenomenal job on Draymond Green. Novak had a hand directly in front of Green’s face every time he shot the ball — reminiscent of the pictures you see of Shane Battier contested Kobe Bryant’s jumpers — and was a primary reason that Green finished with just 7 points on 3 of 14 shooting.
- Jordan Morgan: This game was not only very physical, but officiated very tightly. That meant Michigan was trying to deal with Morgan’s foul trouble all game. The freshman big man was still productive, scoring 10 points (5-6 fg) and grabbing six rebounds in 19 minutes of work.
- Stu Douglass: Stu had a forgettable offensive night with 0 points on 0-4 shooting (with very questionable shot selection) and no assists to one turnover. However, he deserves credit for battling. Stu grabbed three boards along with a block and a steal but more importantly he used every ounce of energy he had to try to slow down Kalin Lucas. Yes, Lucas still scored 25 points but he had to take 19 shots to get there and also turned it over four times (with just two assists). Douglass isn’t the fastest or most athletic player but right now he’s Michigan’s most trusted perimeter defender.
- Colton Christian: A big time tip out that led to a Vogrich three is certainly enough to make your presence felt in 2 minutes of playing time. It’s tough to make an imprint on a game when you are just thrown in the game for 2-3 minutes but Christian has made some great energy plays during the second half of this season, an encouraging sign for the future.
- Matt Vogrich: Three points, five rebounds, and an assist in 20 minutes. Vogrich is starting to develop into a solid backcourt substitute. He continues to play with more energy and is every bit a threat to bury an open three. Still, his five rebounds were the most important aspect of his performance today.
- Blake McLimans: I groaned when he fired up his jumpshot but just had to chuckle when it went down. His shot was very similar to Christian’s in East Lansing, just one of those plays that let you know it might be your day.