Surging Wolverines, reeling Spartans set to meet in East Lansing on Sunday

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The stage is set for the first of two extremely important meetings between the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans.

Michigan (14-7, 4-4 Big Ten) is coming off a 30-point blowout win at home against Indiana where they shot better than 63 percent from the field, their best mark in a conference game in more than a decade. The team has won three of their last four and is arguably playing their best basketball of the season when the games matter most. And really, they could be riding a four-game winning streak had they pulled out that huge win on the road against No. 17 Wisconsin last week.

But no matter, head coach John Beilein has his guys playing exceptional right now on both ends of the floor. That’s now two straight games having allowed 60 points or fewer, and three straight allowing under 70. Obviously it is going to be difficult to replicate the kind of shooting performance they put on display against the Hoosiers Thursday night, but the Wolverines appear to be clicking on both sides of the floor as February draws near.

The same cannot be said for Michigan State (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) and head coach Tom Izzo. What seemed like a nice, quiet start to open Big Ten play has come to a screeching halt over the last week and change. A third consecutive loss has prompted the question of whether or not MSU will even make the NCAA Tournament. And following their loss at home on Tuesday against No. 20 Purdue, comments made by Izzo regarding his lack of care for what the fans think of how the team is playing were put on blast. Some however seemed to be encouraged by his brash and honesty, considering the decorated reputation he has built up in his coaching career.

Things may not be all hunky-dory in East Lansing right now but this is not the first rodeo for the Spartans. If there is any coach and program capable of turning things around right quick when the games matter most, it is Izzo and Michigan State. It’s going to be easier said than done working with a relatively young and inexperienced group of players. But it won’t be the first time it has happened, nor will it be the last.

So what are some things to look forward to as we head into the first of two meetings between these in-state rivals?

Some keys for Michigan:

  • The Wolverines are tops in the Big Ten, 6th in the entire country, in free throw shooting with a 78.2 percent mark from the stripe. The problem however is that they don’t get to the line very often, having the fewest free throw attempts in the conference. It’s mainly a byproduct of being a shooter-friendly team, not a dribble-and-drive kind of offense. Establishing some sort of inside presence early will allow Michigan to open up the offense even more, and it starts with big men Moe Wagner and D.J. Wilson.
  • Conversely, Michigan is probably well-aware that Michigan State is the second-worst free-throw shooting team in the league, hitting only 63.7 percent of their attempts on the season. Knowing that MSU is capable of scoring with the best of them in the country, the Wolverines need to force MSU into contested shots and earn their scoring at the line. The Spartans have had far too many close calls this year where free throws can easily be the biggest difference between a win and a loss.

Some keys for Michigan State:

  • Spartan shooters should feel like they are out on the beach shooting into the ocean. Opponents are shooting better than 47 percent against the Wolverines this season, and better yet, they are also allowing teams to hit better than 42 percent of their attempts from downtown. Both marks are the worst in the Big Ten. Should be no problem finding open, uncontested looks for an MSU team that is 2nd in the Big Ten in assists per game (17.9), making the extra pass if need be.
  • So while Michigan finally has some depth in the front court in Wagner and Wilson, they still lack some tools of big men, most notably in the rebounding department. Michigan as a whole is the worst rebounding team in the conference, grabbing under 30 boards per game. They’re one of two teams (only Penn State is worse) that is in the negative rebounding margin on the season. It could bode well for guys like Miles Bridges and Nick Ward overpowering their way down low for extra chances and easy put-backs.

Other stats to know:

  • TURNOVERS – Michigan is committing the fewest turnovers, not only in the Big Ten, but in the entire country (9.2). They’re one on only three teams in Division I averaging under ten miscues per contest. MSU meanwhile has the second-worst turnover margin in the conference. It’ll be interesting to see not only who wins the turnover battle, but how many points are scored off turnovers.
  • HOME/ROAD – Michigan State is 9-2 this season at the friendly confines of the Breslin Center. They are however coming off a loss at home against Purdue, so expect a little bit of a chip. Michigan meanwhile is winless in all five of their true road games this season, with the average deficit being north of 11 points.

**Stats courtesy of Big Ten Basketball