The Detroit News’ Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins break down Sunday’s Michigan vs. Michigan State game at Breslin Center (1:30 p.m., CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950).
Most of senior guard Zavier Simpson’s offensive numbers are at career highs, from points and assists to field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting. While he is also turning the ball over nearly four times per game, which is twice as much as last season, the most important stat is his shot attempts. Simpson is averaging 7.6 field-goal attempts per game in wins and 12 field-goal attempts in losses. When teams take away his passing and force him to be more as a scorer, it usually doesn’t work in Michigan’s favor. Like Simpson, junior guard Eli Brooks has seen his numbers jump across the board as he has arguably taken the biggest step forward of anyone on the team. Compared to last season, Brooks plays with a much more aggressive mindset and doesn’t become passive after he misses a shot. He ranks second on the team in 3-point shooting (47.2 percent) and the Wolverines have won every game he has made at least one deep ball.
Senior Cassius Winston, of course, is just as vital to Michigan State’s success. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year has seen his overall shooting percentage drop but has made 9 of 18 3-pointers over his last three games to bump his percentage up to 37.2 for the season. Teams have been selling out to stop Winston in ball screens this season, but as the team around him has started to make shots on a more consistent basis, it’s clearing some space for Winston making him just as dangerous as he was a year ago. Winston is joined in the starting lineup by sophomores Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown, two explosive players still seeking consistency. Henry is a dynamic two-way player still seeking his comfort level while Brown, who has started the last seven games, can get hot from 3-point range – he had two in the opener vs. Kentucky and was 3-for-4 at Northwestern – and attacks the glass, averaging 4.5 rebounds a game.
►Edge: Michigan State
Freshman wing Franz Wagner is still searching for consistency on the offensive end after missing the first four games with a fractured shooting wrist. But despite the ups and downs he has experienced on offense, his defensive instincts and ability to effectively guard multiple positions continue to be an asset. With junior forward Isaiah Livers (groin) unlikely to play, sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. is likely to make his second straight start. While Johns is a better rebounder and an equally capable defender, he isn’t quite the same offensive threat as Livers and Michigan will feel the effects of his absence more in this game. With Livers out, senior center Jon Teske has taken over the title as the team’s leading scorer with 14.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. A steady force on the both ends of the floor, Teske has recorded at least 15 points in six of the last seven games and continues to be one of the best rim protectors in the Big Ten.
The Spartans won’t be convinced Livers isn’t playing until he’s on the bench when the ball is tipped. If he plays, it will be interesting to see how Michigan State defends. Junior Xavier Tillman has the athleticism to guard the perimeter but also the bulk inside to bang with Teske. Sophomore Marcus Bingham, meanwhile, proved he could excel guarding more physical guys by frustrating Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, giving the Spartans more options with their forwards. Tillman has been coming on recently on the offensive end and is averaging 13.5 points and 9.7 rebounds. His low-post game has improved, as has his jump shot, while Tillman can also run the floor. Bingham didn’t score in the last game but still had career-highs in rebounds (12) and blocks (5), so his impact won’t likely be felt on the scoreboard.
With Johns likely moving into the starting lineup for a second straight game, Michigan’s reserve unit loses one of its key pieces. Regardless, the Wolverines still have viable options in sophomore guard David DeJulius and sophomore center Colin Castleton. DeJulius has shown he can come off the bench and heat up in a hurry, with his instant offense providing a much-needed spark in several contests this season. Castleton has locked down the backup five role that was a revolving door all last season, but his improved footwork has also resulted in time at the four. Redshirt junior center Austin Davis and freshman guard Cole Bajema have also played well in stints, while sophomore guard Adrien Nunez has struggled on defense and with his 3-point shot (29 percent).
Michigan State’s depth has been tested with the loss of Joshua Langford and the injury to Rocket Watts, the freshman who started the first eight games before a leg injury forced him to miss four games. Watts has the versatility to play both guard spots and will in this game as he is getting more comfortable attacking the basket instead of settling for jumpers. Sophomore Foster Loyer has had two good games in a row and is slowly proving he can be adequate at giving Winston a break. The Spartans will also try and use senior Kyle Ahrens when they can, though he’s bothered by a sore Achilles, while sophomore Thomas Kithier and freshman Malik Hall will get early minutes up front.
Juwan Howard’s tenure has gotten off to a better-than-expected start. The Wolverines have adjusted to playing at a quicker pace and are one of seven teams that rank in the top 25 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency. While Howard has experienced a little bit of everything during the first few months of the season – from near-collapses and double-digit deficits to down-to-the-wire finishes and injured starters – his latest challenge will be finding a way to contain Cassius Winston and counter Xavier Tillman’s ability to switch every screen, which is something Michigan struggled with last season.
It's been a while since Tom Izzo has faced someone other than John Beilein in this series but it will hardly change the way Izzo approaches the game. It’s still huge and Izzo has never shied away from that fact. Izzo excelled last year, adjusting the Michigan State offense to allow Winston to shine and that game plan will be in place once again in this meeting. Izzo said he’s concerned with the quick turnaround from Illinois – two teams that are completely different on the offensive end – but odds are he’ll have the Spartans dialed in by tip-off on Sunday.
►Edge: Michigan State
Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off: Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: No. 12 Michigan (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten); No. 14 Michigan State (11-3, 3-0)
TV/radio: CBS/760, 950