Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and James Hawkins of The Detroit News look ahead to the Michigan-Michigan State game in East Lansing on Saturday. Detroit News
The Detroit News’ Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins break down Saturday’s Michigan-Michigan State game at the Breslin Center (noon, Fox/WJR 760, WWJ 950).
Sophomore Zavier Simpson has come on strong as of late for Michigan and has surged since regaining the starting point guard job. He has tied a career high with 15 points twice to go along with 19 assists and six turnovers over the past three games. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman has scored at least 16 points twice against Michigan State and is at his best when he’s able to get downhill on offense. His aggressiveness could help break down MSU’s vaunted defense and open up shots for others.
The emergence of sophomore Cassius Winston has been one of the biggest developments this season for Michigan State. Taking over the starting role, Winston is second in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting (52.5 percent) and has had double-digit assists three times this season, averaging 7.2 a game. Sophomore Joshua Langford has become a consistent scorer from the perimeter — scoring in double digits in all but five games — and is one of the Spartans’ top defenders on the perimeter and rebounding guards.
It’s hard to match what the Spartans bring along the front court, a group that is helping MSU lead the nation in blocked shots per game and field-goal percentage defense. Freshman Jaren Jackson has made a huge impact, blocking 56 shots while averaging 11.1 points and 6.4 rebounds. Sophomore Nick Ward has been one of the most consistent players in the country, shooting a Big Ten-best 70.7 percent while recording five double-doubles as sophomore Miles Bridges remains the Spartans’ most dynamic player, leading them in scoring at 16.5 points a game and being held to less than 10 points just once this season.
Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews has emerged as the top player for the Wolverines and has scored in double figures the last eight games, while junior center Moritz Wagner and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson have had an up-and-down year so far. Wagner posted three double-doubles and four 20-point games before suffering a right ankle and foot injury at Texas last month. His offense and defense took a hit his first few games back, but he always provides plenty of emotion and can heat up in a hurry. Meanwhile, Robinson has played less than 15 minutes in two of the past three games due to matchups and has hit another rough patch with his 3-point shot. He’s shooting a career-low 35.6 percent from beyond the arc and is just 4-for-16 over the last four games.
Edge: Michigan State
A season ago, Michigan State had little to no depth. This season, that has changed significantly. Junior Matt McQuaid has the ability to get hot from 3-point range and has become one of Michigan State’s better defenders in the backcourt, while senior Tum Tum Nairn — albeit limited offensively — can push the tempo and is an above-average on-ball defender. In the frontcourt, the Spartans have the luxury of turning to seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, both back from knee injuries, while junior Kenny Goins is solid and versatile. Add in the toughness of freshman Xavier Tillman and the Spartans can come at you in waves.
Michigan doesn’t have the depth and experience as Michigan State does, but it has a pair of freshmen in Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole who can provide an immediate spark and completely change the complexion of the game. Over the past four contests, Livers has scored in double figures three times and Poole twice. The duo is joined by fellow freshman Eli Brooks, who started 12 games, and sophomore center Jon Teske, who has a shot-altering presence and the ability to knock down 15-footers.
Edge: Michigan State
You could make a case that John Beilein and Michigan have exceeded expectations so far this season. The Wolverines have gotten the job done by committee at point guard and have a surprisingly sound defense that ranks 26th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.5 points). Michigan has won three of its last six games against top-five foes under Beilein, but is just 7-11 against Michigan State and 2-6 at the Breslin Center.
It’s always easy to overlook the coach when a team is expected to be good, but to discredit the job Tom Izzo has done would be naïve. Before the loss to Ohio State, Michigan State pounding everybody outside of Duke, a game that went down to the wire. That included almost 20-point wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Spartans have depth, but it can be tough managing that rotation, something Izzo has done well with a team that has unmatched chemistry. Izzo has had his ups and downs in the series, but MSU has won five of the last six against Michigan.