'Mano a mano': Michigan blocks out slow start ahead of MSU showdown
The last time Michigan and Michigan State squared off at Crisler Center, the Wolverines were playing for a Big Ten regular-season title.
Fast forward 10 months and plenty has changed. The Wolverines are reeling, unranked and find themselves on the outside of NCAA Tournament projections with an underwhelming resume.
But none of that diminishes the significance of Saturday’s game. The in-state rivalry is always important, even more so for a Michigan team that’s in desperate need of a signature win and is fighting to turn its season around as it enters a brutal three-game gauntlet.
“We all know (Michigan State coach Tom Izzo) will have his team ready and ready to compete,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Friday. “They're a very physical team and they're going to play hard from start to finish.
“They understand it's a rivalry game so they're going to play with some nastiness about them. We've just got to be ready to bring our lunch pail and hard hats and go to work, mano a mano.”
Howard, of course, is no stranger to the rivalry. He played in it during his time as a Wolverine and has split the four meetings against Spartans in his first two seasons as coach, with the home team winning each time.
The same can’t be said for nearly half of Michigan’s roster, which should have at least two of the four players — freshman guard Frankie Collins, sophomore forward Terrance Williams II, senior forward Brandon Johns Jr. and senior walk-on forward Jaron Faulds — who missed Tuesday’s game at Rutgers because of COVID-19 back after being cleared to play.
Grad transfer guard DeVante’ Jones and the six freshmen, including starting forwards Caleb Houstan and Moussa Diabate, will get their first taste on Saturday. Yet, Howard said they all know this game carries more weight and the team watched this season’s Michigan-Michigan State football game during its bus ride to Chicago for a scrimmage against DePaul.
“To be an in-state rivalry, a team that's down the road, they understand this is very important,” Howard said. “They've heard it from me, and they will continue to keep hearing it today as well as tomorrow. …You embrace (the rivalry) when you come as a freshman and join the University of Michigan.”
Michigan, which has lost three of four, will need to perform better than it has most of the season and play up to its potential if it wants to stop its slide. While the Wolverines have plummeted from No. 6 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll to unranked during their disappointing 7-6 start, the Spartans have gone from unranked to No. 10 and are riding an eight-game winning streak.
Howard highlighted Michigan State’s depth and said the Spartans are “loaded” in the frontcourt. He called Gabe Brown, the team’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, the “head of the snake” and commended the job Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard have done at the point.
Assistant coach Phil Martelli noted Michigan State’s 3-point shooting percentages and offensive rebounding numbers give cause for concern, as does the Spartans’ ability to “manhandle” opponents on the defensive end.
But if Michigan wants to pick up a resume-boosting win, Martelli said it starts with the Wolverines not beating themselves.
“It doesn't really matter to me who the opponent is Saturday,” Martelli said on WTKA’s “The Michigan Insider” this week. “To me, the opponent is us and good basketball.
“Are we going to communicate or not on half the defensive possessions or on every defensive possession? Are we going to compete on every ball?”
As Howard pointed out, the Wolverines will need to play with toughness and be ready for a physical battle. They’ll need to bring the energy and effort. They’ll need to limit the defensive mistakes, contest every shot and apply consistent pressure.
They’ll also need to put together a full 40 minutes and display better 3-point shooting after the 3-for-15 showing at Rutgers, which was the fourth time this season they’ve shot 20% or worse from deep in a game.
Michigan had it all when it topped Michigan State last March to claim the Big Ten’s regular-season crown. The Wolverines will need to find it again if they want to prove they can beat the best in the conference, with a visit from Purdue and a trip to Illinois looming next week.
“You’ve got to protect home,” Howard said. “It's good to know this game and the next games coming up are very competitive. But that's the Big Ten. It’s a competitive conference.”
Michigan State at Michigan
► Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
► TV/radio: Fox/760, 950
► Records: No. 10 Michigan State 13-2, 4-0 Big Ten; Michigan 7-6, 1-2
► Outlook: This is Michigan’s first game against a ranked opponent this season. The Wolverines have lost five of the past seven meetings in the rivalry series, but they’ve won seven of the last 11 matchups in Ann Arbor. …Michigan State is 3-0 in true road games, with wins at Butler, Minnesota and Northwestern. The Spartans lead the Big Ten and rank second in the nation with 95 blocked shots.