The Detroit News’ James Hawkins breaks down Sunday’s Michigan-Michigan State game at Crisler Center (3:45 p.m., CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950).
The figurative heads of the snake. Candidates for Big Ten player and defensive player of the year. The driving forces behind one of the nation’s premier offenses and defenses. It’s the matchup within the matchup that will garner most of the attention: Michigan State’s Cassius Winston vs. Michigan’s Zavier Simpson. And for good reason.
The battle of strengths between the junior guards will pit Winston’s will to score from anywhere on the floor against Simpson’s dogged defense that doesn’t lack bark or bite. While Winston’s elevated play and numbers have him soaring into All-American territory, Simpson has a history of bringing him down to earth. In the two meetings last season, Winston shot 35.3 percent (6-for-17) from the field, 16.7 percent (1-for-6) from 3-point range and tallied 22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers, while Simpson shot 52.9 percent (9-for-17) from the floor, 50 percent (2-for-4) from deep and racked up 31 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and two turnovers.
Alongside Simpson, sophomore Jordan Poole has turned into a volatile third scoring option for Michigan and probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves as an improved defender. He has the ball-handling skills to create his own shot and get into the lane, but his long-range shooting is critical for a team whose perimeter game is a concern. Poole is shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the arc and has more made 3-pointers (59) than any other Wolverine by a wide margin. However, his numbers have dipped since Big Ten play resumed due to a combination of increased attention and tough shot attempts.
Senior Matt McQuaid gives Michigan State a lockdown defender who can silence a team’s top option. Just ask Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, who McQuaid put the clamps on and held to 25 points on 7-for-35 shooting in two meetings. Despite his fluctuating offense, McQuaid is always a 3-point threat (44.1 percent) who has knocked down at least three 3-pointers in eight games.
On the surface, there’s a similar theme throughout Michigan and Michigan State’s frontcourt. Each has a talented freshman in the starting lineup along with a player who went from a bench option to an important piece. They also featured a pair of key figures — Charles Matthews and Nick Ward — until Ward suffered a hand injury last weekend.
First, the freshmen: Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis and Michigan State’s Aaron Henry. There were high expectations tied with Brazdeikis when he arrived and it’s hard to say he hasn’t delivered. A starter from Day 1, Brazdeikis has proven he can hold up against bigger bodies on defense and not let it affect his offense. He’s posted seven games of at least 20 points, has improved as an outside shooter and thrives around the rim where he can finish with either hand. Henry took a different path into Michigan State’s lineup due to myriad injuries, including a season-ending one to Joshua Langford. Henry doesn’t pack the same type of punch and has his limitations on offense, but has shown flashes that he can be a difference-maker.
Michigan State forward Kenny Goins and Michigan center Jon Teske have both transformed from backups to arguably the most essential player on their respective teams. Goins doesn’t do anything that wows, but is solid in so many areas for the Spartans. He defends with energy, rebounds at a high level and can space the floor with his perimeter shooting. Teske has blossomed on the offensive end as one of the best big men in the pick-and-roll game analytically and can make teams pay in pick-and-pop situations. Yet, Teske’s true value comes on the other end where he’s the anchor of Michigan’s staunch defense and top shot-blocker in the Big Ten.
One of the most memorable images from last season’s Big Ten tournament clash featured Matthews laughing in Ward’s face. But there won’t be a chance for another moment like that with Ward sidelined and sophomore big man Xavier Tillman taking his place. While Ward’s production will be missed by the Spartans, Tillman is a more than capable replacement who ranks third in the conference in field-goal percentage (61.5 percent), sixth in blocked shots (43) and 13th in rebounds (7.0). In his first game since Ward's injury, Tillman had 19 points (7-of-12 shooting) and 10 rebounds Wednesday night in the Spartans' 71-60 victory over Rutgers.
Matthews, on the other hand, is a two-way threat capable of shutting down his matchup and shouldering the scoring load for Michigan. Over the last four games, he’s seemingly hit his stride and is averaging 16.3 points on 55.1 percent shooting by exploding to the rim more and getting his mid-range shot to fall.
It’s no secret that one of Michigan’s weaknesses is its lack of depth, and Michigan State doesn’t exactly have a wealth of it like it did a season ago. In Big Ten play, the Wolverines and Spartans have primarily used seven-man rotations and haven’t had to dive deep into their benches unless foul trouble hits. But that appears to be changing.
For Michigan State, Tillman’s transfer to the starting lineup leaves wing Kyle Ahrens as the lone reserve who has logged extensive playing time. Despite battling through a bad back, Ahrens provides valuable minutes out on the perimeter and can provide an offensive boost with seven outings with at least eight points. Ward’s absence also will lead to a larger role for freshman forward Thomas Kithier, who has played solid in short stints, and could require more from freshmen Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Livers has solidified the sixth-man role for Michigan, which ranks No. 352 in the nation in bench minutes, per KenPom. Livers’ versatility gives the Wolverines the opt to go to a small-ball lineup, and he’s the team’s top 3-point shooter at 43 percent. Sophomore guard Eli Brooks is getting it done on defense but has been searching for his offense, which has led to guard David DeJulius seeing time at backup point guard. At the five, freshman forward Brandon Johns Jr. and redshirt sophomore center Austin Davis continue to share a cameo role that has had more valleys than peaks.
Neither Michigan or Michigan State is stocked with pro prospects, but have still found themselves ranked in the top 10 throughout much of the season thanks to John Beilein and Tom Izzo. After Michigan lost most of its outside shooting from a year ago, Beilein adapted the offense to fit the personnel, constantly adjusts to his players’ strengths and continues to embrace defense as the team’s identity. While Izzo doesn’t have the luxury of a star freshman or lottery pick like recent seasons, he’s still found a way to navigate Michigan State’s ailments and turn the Spartans into a contender by having them play faster than ever before.
Sure, the Wolverines and Spartans have both suffered unexpected losses along the way. But Michigan’s defense is better than it was a year ago and Michigan State is one of three teams who rank in the top 10 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Both programs also have thrived against top competition, with Michigan going 6-0 and Michigan State 6-1 against ranked teams.
Even though Beilein has gotten the better of Izzo in recent meetings to close the gap in the head-to-head series at 11-9, both have had their teams playing as well — if not better — as anyone could’ve envisioned and still in the thick of the Big Ten title hunt.