This afternoon, the women's basketball team begins a difficult six-day stretch in which they'll play three games, including two road games against teams currently at or near the top of the Big Ten standings--MSU today and Wisconsin on Saturday. In between, they have a home game Wednesday at 7:00 against tenth-place Indiana.
Here are the current Big Ten standings:
|#11 Michigan State||9-2||--||.818||21-3||.875||W3|
|#23 Penn State||9-3||.5||.750||20-6||.769||L1|
Michigan has five games remaining, and if they can win three of those they're assured of finishing no worse than tied for fourth with a conference record of 10-6. They have a good shot of doing so as they finish the season with a home game against ninth-place Minnesota and an away matchup with last-place Illinois. A record of 10-6 or better would also place them in good shape to garner their first NCAA tournament bid since 2001.
As for the matchup today with the Spartans, MSU is the clear favorite and will have the backing of a sell-out crowd at Breslin. The historical record is daunting: Michigan has lost to the Spartans eight straight times and 17 of the last 18 times. In their previous meeting this season, MSU beat U-M 63-56 in Ann Arbor on January 9. Since that time, one of Michigan's starters, Nya Jordan, has gone down with a season-ending injury. She's been replaced in the lineup by Courtney Boylan.
Kate Thompson has also emerged with a larger role since Jordan's injury, and in fact played 35 minutes off the bench in Michigan's last game, a victory over Illinois one week ago. Rothstein has a nice feature on Thompson in today's annarbor.com.
Thompson's play on the defensive end, along with that of center Rachel Sheffer, provide a reason for hoping today's outcome might be different from that of the last meeting with MSU. In a Michigan Daily article, Caitlin Smith explained it this way:
Michigan is at its best when it spreads its offensive effort across the lineup, but the greater challenge for [Sunday] might come at the defensive end.
Redshirt junior forward Lykendra Johnson and senior forward Kalisha Keane lead Michigan State on the attack, both standing at 6-foot-1. Keane averages 16 points and five rebounds a game, while Johnson tallies 11 points and 9 boards. Johnson dominated Michigan in its last contest against the Spartans, notching 17 points and 17 rebounds. She also grabbed 11 offensive rebounds — more than all of the Wolverines combined.
The Wolverines may have had trouble against Johnson early in the season, but Sheffer and sophomore guard Kate Thompson have since developed into strong defenders at the post, shutting down some of the Big Ten’s best players. The duo held Ohio State’s three-time Big Ten Player of the Year Jantel Lavender to a career-low 10 points in a 69-66 victory two weeks ago.
Michigan has the athleticism to beat the Spartans, as long as its starters can create some offense and defend the post area like they have done in a handful of games this season.
Michigan might also be helped by having a full week to prepare for this game, while MSU is coming off a Thursday game in which they battled (and defeated) Penn State (at PSU) for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.