Game 26: Michigan State at Michigan Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: Michigan State (17-8, 8-4 B1G) at Michigan (13-12, 6-7 B1G) image
Where: Crisler Center (Ann Arbor, MI)
When: 9:00 p.m., February 17th, 2015
Radio: 950 AM, 1050AM

Last year, Michigan and Michigan State met three times and always had one goal in sight: a Big Ten Championship.

This year the stakes are admittedly lower and both teams enter tonight’s showdown in Ann Arbor in vastly different positions.

The Spartans are celebrating a Saturday afternoon win over Ohio State that they hope will save their season, taking a massive step closer to keeping their NCAA tournament streak alive. The Wolverines have lost four in a row and five of their last six and will be playing without their two best players – Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton – due to injuries. Michigan has shown fight without its star players — three losses in overtime and one by a single possession — but simply hasn’t been able to get over the hump.

This week, Michigan can throw out everything and focus on the basics: trying to save its season by beating its rivals at home. The Spartans have more talent – I’m not sure Michigan has a head-to-head advantage at any position – and more experience, but the Wolverines gave them everything they could handle in East Lansing and will now have their home crowd behind them.

The Spartans

The Spartans do four things very well: defend, rebound, push the ball in transition and make threes.

If your team can only do four things very well, that’s a pretty good list.

Michigan State is scoring 1.07 points per trip in Big Ten play, fifth best in the league. The Spartans shoot 47.9% on twos (7th) and 37.7% on threes (2nd) for a 50.7 eFG% (5th). The bread and butter for this MSU offense, like many before it, is on the offensive glass. The Spartans grab 35.6% of their misses, second best in the league. The trouble spots for this group have been making free throws — the Spartans shoot a league worst 61.2% — and turnovers — they give it away on 18.5% of their offensive possessions (9th).

Michigan State’s defense has been locked in over the past five games. The Spartans haven’t surrendered more than a point per possession since Nebraska (!) scored 1.15 points per trip in late January. MSU’s defense is allowing a league-best .96 points per possession in Big Ten play.

The Spartans rebound 75% of their opponents misses – best in the conference – and allow just 44.6% shooting inside the arc (3rd) and 31.2% shooting outside (1st) for a 45.4 eFG% (2nd). Despite an otherwise impressive defensive unit, Michigan State has struggled with fouls (allowing 38.9 free throws per 100 field goal attempts) and doesn’t force turnovers as often as some of the conference’s more aggressive team.


Junior guard Denzel Valentine is, for my money, Michigan State’s most important player. He distributes, he rebounds, he shoots the three and he can create off the bounce. His KenPom player comparison is to Iowa State’s George Niang and that’s a great comparison because they are probably two of the most versatile players in the country. Valentine has hit at least four threes in Michigan State’s last four games and is 17 of 35 during that stretch.

Branden Dawson is ranked 3rd in the Big Ten in offensive rebounding and 2nd in defensive rebounding. He’s a physically imposing force on both ends of the floor and he can dominate the game with his physicality. He’s definitely not a shooter, but he hit a surprising number of turnaround jumpers around the paint in the first meeting.

Matt Costello changed the first game with his shot blocking ability. He swatted four Michigan shots in that game and is ranked third in the Big Ten in block percentage. Costello continues to come off the bench for Gavin Schilling, but I’m not really sure what Schilling does better than Costello.

Lourawls Nairn has stepped into the starting lineup and is in the game to provide defense and push the ball in transition. He hit his first three of the year against Ohio State (he’s now 1-4) and he’s a bit turnover prone, but he’s definitely quick.

Bryn Forbes is Michigan State’s designated shooter and he’s shooting 46% on threes in league games. Michigan let him get a few too many open looks in the first game and will need to do a better job of knowing personnel this time around and running him off the line.

Travis Trice is shooting 37% on twos and 35% on threes in Big Ten play. He’s still reliable with the ball and an above-average passer, but his shooting has regressed somewhat in Big Ten play.


Both coaches are going to look at the last matchup to see what worked and what didn’t. So there’s no better place to start than last game. Here’s a look at Michigan’s offensive and defensive performances in the first meeting.


Michigan’s defensive performance in East Lansing can be easily split into three phases: 1) halfcourt man 2) halfcourt zone and 3) transition.

Here are shot charts of all three situations from Synergy Sports (layups below in black).


Michigan State scored made 6 out of 10 layups in transition, but only hit 2 out of 7 three-point attempts. Overall, the Spartans had way too many opportunities in unsettled situations. If Michigan gives up 17 field goal attempts in transition tonight, it will probably be a long night for the Wolverine defense.


Michigan State picked apart both of Michigan’s zone defenses with ruthless efficiency. This shot chart shows a well-drilled offense that was trying to get one of two things against Michigan’s zones: layups or corner threes for Forbes or Valentine.

Michigan ran zone defense on 16 halfcourt possessions and Michigan State scored on 11 of them. The zone has been a helpful tool of late, especially given Michigan’s injuries and depth, but Michigan will have to do some things very differently if it wants to try to zone Michigan State again.


This chart is actually a bit more encouraging. Michigan recorded stops on 25 of 40 man-to-man halfcourt possessions. You can see that the Spartans were forced to shoot a little further away from the hoop, but still got into the paint, and weren’t nearly as effective around the rim.


Michigan’s offense was actually very good during the first matchup in East Lansing. The Wolverines finished with a final tally of .96 points per possession, but that included getting shutout in overtime. Looking at regulation, the Wolverines scored 1.06 points per trip.

That above-average offensive performance was almost entirely isolation and pick-and-roll based. 27 of Michigan’s 54 halfcourt field goal attempts were either off of ball screens/ISOs or passes directly out of ball screens. The following chart shows all of Michigan’s halfcourt FGAs, with ISO/ball screen action flagged in red.


Two and a half weeks ago, no one would have expected Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman to be involved in so many of those attempts. Before that game, Tom Izzo told reporters he expected Derrick Walton to play. There’s little doubt that Abdur-Rahkman, who played the best game of his career in East Lansing, caught the Spartans by surprise.

It’s hard to imagine that happening again as we’ve already seen the adjustment – forcing him to beat them with the pass — that teams are making against Michigan’s freshman guard.

Perhaps the bigger key will be whether Michigan’s guards are able to create shots for the bigs and the shooters (Dawkins, Irvin) on the wings. If Abdur-Rahkman and Albrecht are trying to convert circus shots at the rim for 40 minutes, Michigan will struggle. But if they can create some drive and dish opportunities, Michigan can find much better balance.

Other Keys:

  • I like the strategy of using Max Bielfeldt to defend Branden Dawson. Whether Max is playing the five or the four, Bielfeldt is probably the only Wolverine with the strength to stand up to Dawson.
  • Free throws and turnovers are more critical than a normal game. Michigan needs to value the basketball (as it usually does), but also needs to create some advantage by forcing turnovers or getting to the free throw line because it’s almost certain that Michigan State will add extra possessions on the offensive glass.
  • Michigan needs to find a way to create some easy baskets against Michigan State’s defense. The Spartans are too good defensively to win this game without Michigan scoring about 10-15 points in transition or on second chances (a tall task given the importance of transition defense).
  • The three-point lottery is another key to any big home upset and Michigan will have to hit some. The Spartans are the second best 3-point shooting team in the league and Michigan is ranked 10th, so there’s plenty of work to do.

Bottom Line

KenPom likes Michigan State in this one, 61-59, giving Michigan a 37% shot at the home upset.

  • jakelam2116

    Great breakdowns, Dylan. It’s been a rough last few games for Rahk since the meeting in EL. Hopefully he can bounce back and make some big plays tonight. I, too, like playing Max and matchup him up with Dawson. Heck, just playing Max big minutes, period, sounds right. No one’s playing better right now.