Wojo: MSU, UM on starkly different trajectories

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — If Michigan State keeps playing like this, look out above. If Michigan keeps playing like this, look out below.

One team is peaking, the other is leaking badly. We knew there was a disparity between the Spartans and Wolverines, but this was staggering. Barely two weeks after their own slips, the Spartans have turned it back around, and in one blistering performance, showed how much they possess, and how much the Wolverines are missing.

Michigan State rolled to an 89-73 victory Saturday at Crisler Center, and believe me, it wasn’t that close. And yes, one of Michigan’s missing items is star Caris LeVert, still sidelined with a leg injury. The Wolverines might not be good enough with LeVert to beat the big boys, but they have little shot without him.

And sure enough, Michigan State has rolled back to Big Boy status, with Bryn Forbes’ incredible shooting and Denzel Valentine’s spectacular all-around game on display. The scary part for the rest of the Big Ten is, the Spartans are starting to defend as well as they shoot, and they shoot as well as they ever have under Tom Izzo. It wasn’t just the effort by Forbes, who hit eight of 10 3-pointers and finished with 29 points. It was the ease with which the Spartans scored.

Michigan’s inexcusably soft defense made it easier than ever. The teams might be tied at 7-4 in the Big Ten, but that’s where the comparison ends. The Wolverines just got bashed by two top teams at home — 80-67 to Indiana earlier — and are putting their NCAA Tournament hopes back in peril. They still have no idea when LeVert will return after missing five weeks, with John Beilein saying his senior leader is doing more on the practice floor, but he could offer no timetable.

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Nobody exploits weaknesses as convincingly as the Spartans, who won their fourth straight in the rivalry, their second straight stomping at Crisler Center.

“To say I’m ecstatic would be underselling it,” Izzo said. “We went with our horses and our horses responded.”

Plenty of giddy up

Those horses are his seniors, Valentine, Forbes and Matt Costello, ingredients the Wolverines simply don’t have. LeVert is their only senior, and they desperately need him back. But there are other missing elements, and Beilein has to dig up some answers.

Michigan State now does what Michigan does — shoot 3-pointers — even better. So, the Wolverines must respond like they mean it and do what the Spartans usually do — play passionate defense. While Michigan State is growing into a typically tough Izzo team, Michigan is flailing. As the Spartans were building a 30-point lead and shooting an astonishing 64 percent (14 for 22 on three-pointers), the Wolverines’ frustration mounted.

Beilein doesn’t want to belabor the obvious and rip his young, mentally fragile team, but the Wolverines sit at a dangerous crossroad. They’re 17-7 but have lost by double-digits to every power team they’ve faced, outside of Maryland. This one got so lopsided, Zak Irvin verbally lit up his teammates during a timeout in the second half, punctuated by arm gestures and a floor slap.

“It’s very frustrating, especially when you got them laughing at us on our homecourt,” Irvin said. “I was just fed up with the way we’ve been playing these last two games. I felt we need to take it more personally. We gotta get to the point where enough is enough. We have to have the mentality that we have to play defense in order to win games. We’re not gonna just beat people by shooting threes and making jump shots.”

Bingo. And for the perfect example, Irvin only had to look at the other team on the court. The Spartans lost three straight last month as they adjusted to Valentine’s return from a knee injury. For all Forbes’ marksmanship, Valentine is the one who ignites it all, on both ends of the floor.

Mr. Robinson's neighbor

Michigan State knew how much Michigan relied on its outside shooting, particularly Duncan Robinson, so Valentine took the defensive assignment at the start, and also took it personally. Beating a rival on the road in his final season meant a ton, and it showed.

“We didn’t want to let Robinson get going,” Valentine said. “So, I got into him early and pretty much let him know he wasn’t gonna have a good day.”

Robinson finished with two points and 0-for-3 on 3-pointers. His recent struggles mirror Michigan’s struggles, as better defenses have cranked up to stop him. That’s what had Izzo so ecstatic afterward, raving about Forbes’ and Valentine’s defense before he said anything about their shooting.

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Izzo has openly wondered if his team’s stellar defensive numbers were fool’s gold, even when the Spartans were ranked No. 1. He wonders less and less when he sees a shooter like Forbes diving on the floor and spilling a little blood, as he did in a collision with Derrick Walton Jr.

Effort like that allows Izzo to accept the once-inconceivable, that his team relies on shooting as much as its trademark defense. The Spartans shoot 42.4 percent on three-pointers and average 21 attempts per game. The three-point-centric Wolverines shoot 40.2 percent from long range and average 25.7 attempts.

The Wolverines are missing some pieces, but after this game, they should be painfully aware of the reality — it’s way past time for them to add defensive tenacity to the mix.

“It’s on me to find ways to shore up this deficit — with our depth, with our roster, with our talent level,” Beilein said. “We’re just really having trouble stopping people. We’re gonna have to outscore them, that’s the only way we can beat the elite teams right now.”

Michigan’s defense sure wasn’t on the Forbes list in this one. You have to do more than shoot, and Michigan State is on its way to hammering the point yet again.