Hoops Preview: Michigan State

Submitted by Ace on January 27th, 2017 at 5:15 PM


WHAT #33 Michigan (14-7, 4-4 B1G) at
#53 Michigan State (12-9, 4-4)
WHERE Breslin Center
East Lansing, Michigan
WHEN 1 pm ET, Sunday
LINE MSU -1 (KenPom)
N/A (Vegas)
PBP: Kevin Harlan
Analyst: Clark Kellogg

Right: Gonna keep rolling with "embarrassing photos of opposing coaches" until that stops working. [Bryan Fuller/MGoBlog]


Last night's dismantling of Indiana shot Michigan up ten spots on KenPom. While the Bracket Matrix hadn't been updated at the time this was written, it's safe to say the Wolverines couldn't have done much more in that game to improve their tourney hopes; CBS's Jerry Palm moved M up to an 8-seed in today's update.

Going by KenPom's updated numbers, Michigan's win projection has improved substantially:

KenPom projects Sunday's game as a virtual toss-up, giving Michigan a 45% chance to pull off the road win. With four home games and road matchups with Rutgers and Nebraska left on the schedule, that would put a 10-8 conference record (and 20 regular-season wins) very much in play.


Projected starters are in bold. Hover over headers for stat explanations. The "Should I Be Mad If He Hits A Three" methodology: we're mad if a guy who's not good at shooting somehow hits one. Yes, you're still allowed to be unhappy if a proven shooter is left open. It's a free country.

Pos. # Name Yr. Ht./Wt. %Min %Poss ORtg SIBMIHHAT
G 11 Tum Tum Nairn Jr. 5'10, 175 60 12 109 Kinda
Decent distributor, but wonky shot has only improved slightly. Tiny usage for PG.
G 14 Eron Harris Sr. 6'3, 190 59 24 107 Not At All
Excellent three-point shooter both on spot-ups and off the bounce.
G 1 Josh Langford Fr. 6'5, 210 51 15 109 Not At All
Good spot-up shooter who sticks to perimeter; one FT attempt in B1G play.
F 22 Miles Bridges Fr. 6'7, 230 51 27 100 Not At All
ORtg doesn't do his all-around game justice. As he goes, so goes MSU.
C 44 Nick Ward Fr. 6'8, 250 48 33 105 Very
Massive-usage post scorer. Great rebounder and shot-blocker. Fouls, FTs can be issues.
G 5 Cassius Winston Fr. 6'0, 185 50 24 104 Kinda
Boasts #1 assist rate in the country, but inconsistent shot and too many TOs.
F 25 Kenny Goins So. 6'6, 230 47 12 98 Very
Former walk-on forced to spot Ward at C. Decent finisher but very TO-prone.
G 3 Alvin Ellis Sr. 6'4, 210 39 20 101 No
Decent outside shooter, disruptive defender getting more time lately.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the preview.]


There's some weird guys out there.

Season-ending injuries to Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling wiped out MSU's frontcout depth before the season began. Tom Izzo has been forced to make do with a freshman, a former walk-on, and a current walk-on at center.

For as bad as that sounds, it could be much worse. The freshman, Nick Ward, has been the surprise of the season in the Big Ten, averaging 13 points, six boards, and two blocks in 19 minutes per game. When he's on the floor, the ball is very likely to go through the post, and he's one of the better pure post scorers Michigan has faced this year. That said, he still has his shortcomings, mainly at the free-throw line (56%, a big issue given how often he draws fouls) and getting into foul trouble.

Don't be surprised if Michigan goes at Ward from the jump. He's had a rough recent stretch, committing 16 fouls and nine turnovers over the last four games while going 15-for-30 from the field. The Spartans lost three of those games in large part because there's a significant dropoff when Ward is on the bench. Former walk-on Kenny Goins does an admirable job of playing center at 6'6", 230, but he can be overwhelmed in the post, and it only gets worse if 6'5", 220-pound walk-on Matt Van Dyk is pressed into service—he's played 22 scoreless minutes in that four-game sample.

Izzo also faces a conundrum at point guard, where he has two flawed options. Junior Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn has experience on his side but he's only hit 9-of-24 three-pointers even though opponents are more than willing to let him shoot; his presence kills any spacing MSU hopes to have on offense. Freshman Cassius Winston (yes, the former M recruit) has displayed a ton of potential—he leads the country in assist rate—and is much more involved on offense, but he's struggled with his shot and turns the ball over at an Izzo-tantrum-causing rate.

Two more players in the starting lineup have rather limited games. Junior Eron Harris is a 40% three-point sniper who's otherwise not adding a whole lot; Izzo publicly hoping for more consistency from Harris has been a running theme all season. Freshman Josh Langford (yes, another former M recruit) has a great jump shot—he's top-20 in the conference in eFG%—but he's almost never in attack mode; he's attempted one free throw total in eight Big Ten games. I couldn't find a Michigan rotation player on KenPom with that low a free-throw rate unless you want to count 2001-02 reserve Mike Gotfredson.

That brings us, finally, to the most important player on the Spartans, freshman forward Miles Bridges (yes, yet another former M recruit). Bridges is shooting 54% on twos and 42% on threes and he's nationally ranked in both defensive rebound and block rates. He takes on a huge workload, one that only grows in crunch time. This is an astonishing stat:

MSU let a monster effort from Bridges—33 points (7/9 2P, 5/8 3P), seven rebounds, four blocks—go to waste in their most recent game, a loss to Purdue at home. That goes to show it's possible to beat State when he's on, though it's much easier when he's not: the Spartans are 1-6 in games he's posted an ORtg of 100 or worse, with the lone win against Florida Gulf Coast. 


The Spartans struggled through a nonconference gauntlet that included losses to four of the top 16 teams in the country and a slip-up against #118 Northeastern. After a 3-0 start in Big Ten play, they've lost four of their last five, though the sole win was an impressive 18-point blowout of Minnesota at the Breslin Center. 


Small sample size caveats apply.

Four Factors explanation

With the center position down to Nick Ward, scotch tape, and some spare paper clips, MSU's offense looks different than any Izzo offense that's preceded it. That's mostly based on their performance on the glass: this is on pace to be Izzo's worst offensive rebounding team in his tenure by some distance. They're more turnover-prone than usual and also more reliant on the outside shot.

The defense has managed to remain strong due to excellent interior defense and rebounding; I realize this is hard to reconcile with the issues on offense. The Spartans block a lot of shots; they also commit a lot of fouls.


Get Ward off the court. Self-explanatory given everything above. While Michigan doesn't have a pair of behemoths like Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan, who bullied Ward into his worst game of the season on Tuesday, the Wagner/Wilson duo could have a similar impact as the Wolverines continue to get more frontcourt-oriented on offense. The good news is even if Ward stays out of foul trouble, Beilein should be able to get Wagner some breathers that aren't disastrous for the team when Ward needs a break and Goins or Van Dyk enters the game.

Provide timely help on Ward/Bridges. Michigan's post defense has improved significantly of late. Wagner and Wilson have done a much better job of communicating on defense and they've held their own against burly post scorers. Part of that has been providing better help defense—Wilson forced a Thomas Bryant travel last night with a perfectly timed double when it looked like Donnal was in trouble—and the guards should be able to help out, too, when Tum Tum is running the point. Getting aggressive against the bigs could lead to some transition opportunities.

Don't let Harris get hot. In general, Eron Harris has been very good in MSU's wins and largely absent in their losses. The key is preventing him from getting decent looks beyond the arc. MAAR is coming off arguably the best defensive performance of his career, holding James Blackmon Jr. to four points and not allowing him to put up even a single three-point attempt. MAAR should draw Harris; that matchup may very determine could the outcome.


MSU by 1.

I'll be curious to see how Vegas looks at this game. These teams seem to be heading in opposite directions, though fortunes have a way of changing very quickly in college basketball. At the very least, Ward/Bridges vs. Wagner/Wilson should be a fun matchup to watch.



January 27th, 2017 at 5:44 PM ^

It almost mirrors their football team - their upperclassmen generally suck and their talent is in very young players.

Deyonta Davis going pro was a blow as no one thought he was 1 and done - certaintly not under Izzo who hadn't had one of those since Richardson and Randolph era.  Hell he hadn't had a 2 and done until Gary Harris.

To make up for Davis they got a grad transfer from UNLV or somewhere - who promptly blew up his knee.

Then Schilling their other big man, a mediocre one, got hurt.  So that leaves Nick Ward - who as Ace has said - has been a revelation, and walk ons as their big men.  Ward was in beast mode vs non conf players and early in Big 10 but slowed a lot the past half dozen games as I'm sure he has hit the freshman wall of a big man.

Bridges was also out 6-7 games and is their everything.

Their upperclassmen PG couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from 6 feet out.  Winston is as advertised, a heady guy who can read the game well but needs work on shooting.

Eron Harris is not what was expected i.e. 18 pts a game ala West VA.  He will give you 20 one night and then 2 the next. 

Josh Langford has not been the #20 player in the country.

All that said they have another potential monster class coming in next year, and should bring back all but Miles Bridges and will have a good team of sophomores and freshman next year.  So let's break that NCAA streak this year!


January 28th, 2017 at 8:43 AM ^

MTSU loss had nothing to do with Davis, and I think that was a big reason he left. When Davis was on the floor it was a guaranteed State all-oop dunk. Then Izzo when away from him, inexplicably. Something he was doing wasn't "Izzo enough." That was catastrophic game management and program management by Izzo.


January 27th, 2017 at 5:46 PM ^

Izzo has whiffed badly chasing top tier recruits until this latest class and does not have a strong history with "one and dones" or using a lot of young players early on. The MSU freshman class was top 2 or 3 rankings wise even with the miss on Josh Jackson to Kansas.

The big issue (pun intended) is the loss of 3 experienced frontcourt players on the team due to injury and attrition. They really did not anticipate the kid (forget his name) who went pro last year after riding the bench as a Frosh. After he declared Izzo knew there were potential issues and brought in a grad transfer who almost immediately blew out his knee. If you add even two of those to the current team and this would probably be closer to the MSU teams we know and loathe.


January 28th, 2017 at 6:44 PM ^

Losing schilling killed them.

It's really enjoyable watching Izzo melt down. If we play like we should Sunday Izzo could pull off some epic tantrums.

I agree with Ace that making sure Harris does not hurt you is key. He can get hot if you leave him open but is a non factor if he has a man on him.


January 27th, 2017 at 5:26 PM ^

"Unheralded 3 star recruit Nick Ward"

AKA ESPN's 39th rated recuit in their top 100 last year and a 4 star? He was a consensus 4 star recruit, top 50 player, and 42nd in 247's composite ratings.


January 27th, 2017 at 5:29 PM ^

It'll be really interesting to see Ward try and guard Wagner/Wilson on the perimeter and in PnR situations. Ward doesn't seem quick enough to keep up, which could lead to some blow-by dunks from the German. 

I think the key on defense is to not let Harris, Ellis, or McQuaid (not listed), get hot from 3. If we play with the same defensive intensity as we did vs IU, we should pull out a road W in EL. 



January 27th, 2017 at 5:39 PM ^

I try to cover the whole rotation, but sometimes I won't get to everyone. Going over the current top eight is my main priority. Plus, McQuaid is really struggling; it's not like I skipped over a vital bench scorer.


January 27th, 2017 at 5:38 PM ^

WOTS is double Nick Ward on every entry pass, let Miles do his damage... and don't give much of a f*** about everyone else as those are their 2 prime time players.  Every so often an Eron Harris or Alvin Ellis will have himself a game but if Winston is held down by MAAR when he is in the game (you can guard Nairn with a wet paper towel) and we keep Ward under 15 or so pts you live with Bridges 25 pts and call it a day. 

p.s. Josh Langford has been pretty disappointing thus far for the 20th ranked guy in the country.


January 27th, 2017 at 8:06 PM ^

will be guarded by Walton in all likelihood, and Walton will, as with everyone he guards, have a hard time staying in front of him.  That could be our toughest matchup if Winston forces help on the drive and is able to find open guys.

The other tough matchup will be Ward.  Wagner hasn't been good against burly post guys (see Thomas Bryant last night), so I expect Ward to get his, just need to keep Wagner out of foul trouble though because he presents an even greater problem for Ward on the offensive end, IMO.


January 27th, 2017 at 8:59 PM ^

Winston's recruiting profile was: slow with nice handles and elite vision, and that's held true through his college career, to date. He doesn't get his assists by blowing by his man, he does it by never failing to see an open guy and passing his guys open. Especially after the IU game, I think Walton vs Winston falls in our favor, Walton *should* be able to take Winston off the bounce.


January 28th, 2017 at 10:13 PM ^

but was crafty enough to make two guys guard him and find the open man.  There won't be an open man unless you're good enough to create a threat such that the other team has to help.  Spike did it.  Winston does it well too.  Doesn't matter that the guy is "slow", he leads the country in assist rate and he'll create shots against Walton.

Walton doesn't take anyone off the bounce.  He shoots very few two's.  That's been a huge problem for us.  He actually did have a couple nice drives against IU which was encouraging to see, but track record suggests he won't be creating much off the bounce.


January 27th, 2017 at 9:24 PM ^

When Bum Bum is in I'd put Walton on him and get MAAR on Harris.  When Winston is in I think you can live with Walton on an Alvin Ellis type and let MAAR disrupt Cassius.  But that's me and I am a clueless message board poster.

Agree on Ward - we don't do well with burly but teams are double teaming him and he is forcing things now as he is not used to it.   Ward looks like a lot of trouble next year - could be the next Swanigan with a nice FR to SO jump but for now I think the scouting report is out on him.  Also he is horrible at FTs so it won't hurt us too bad to foul him.

Basically in Chicago Bulls terms of the 1990s - let Jordan (Miles) and Pippen (Ward) get theirs and shut down everyone else.  We can deal with Horace Grant...

That said, desperate team playing at home vs the only rival they care about.... and a team that has zero true road wins. I doubt it works out well Sunday but a split seems a lot more feasible than 10 days ago.  If we can somehow steal this one it would be awesome.


January 28th, 2017 at 10:21 PM ^

Walton should be able to sag off him 5 feet and handle him perfectly fine.  Nairn is terrible and the matchup is certainly way favorable with him on the floor.  It evens out more with Winston playing.

I do disagree about the assertion that it doesn't hurt to foul Ward because it'll be Wagner fouling him and we need Wagner not in foul trouble.

I like the Wilson against Miles matchup though.  At least, I like his chance to keep him in check enough that I definitely wouldn't double on Ward and I wouldn't be too aggressive with the fouls with Wagner.  Donnal has five fouls to give though so he shouldn't let Ward do anything easy.

Yinka Double Dare

January 27th, 2017 at 5:47 PM ^

"Junior Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn has experience on his side but he's only hit 9-of-24 three-pointers even though opponents are more than willing to let him shoot; "

That's not even a bad percentage, just a guy who doesn't have confidence to take the shots. He's a wretched 7 for 17 from the free throw line this year, so I have to think confidence in his shot in general is a major, major problem.


January 27th, 2017 at 5:48 PM ^

Ward takes a wide base and dives into every screen he creates (similar to Davis last year).  Must think he has to hit the screenee each time. Called alot but not always.

He also has happy feet when closely guarded which is almost never called.  

In addition, watch for the move he makes with his back to the basket.  He pivots as he dribbles first in front of himself and then the next bounce is around the guarding player.

That is all.

Ty Butterfield

January 27th, 2017 at 5:58 PM ^

Time to see if this team is for real. This is the perfect game to make a statement. Michigan just put together 2 soild games and Staee is in a funk. So........I fully expect Michigan to come out flat and lose by 15. Hope I am wrong.


January 28th, 2017 at 12:00 PM ^

if we get blown out or if we win. Losing in EL can happen easily to anyone if they don't bring their "A" game; all we have to do is look at what happened to Indiana against us to know homecookin' is meaningful. A blow out means we are back to square One still trying to get better and tougher. Winning in EL on the otherhand would be meaningful because MSU isn't going to roll over at home and especially against us. The crowd is going to have their backs the whole game. Winning there would reflect growth and improvement, not just in terms of wins and losses but that the coaching staff still 'has it'. Let's hope it happens, Go Blue.


January 27th, 2017 at 6:01 PM ^

of coaching acumen but I don't see the appeal of playing for him. His teams win when his upperclassmen beat up on less physical/experienced teams. No one goes to Staee and gets better; the guys who leave as studs for the NBA came in that way. He is fooling himself going after these one and done types. Really looking forward to the end of his tenure and the myth of his excellence.


January 28th, 2017 at 11:52 AM ^

I've always thought the same. You can't argue wih results at the end of the day, but it's always the same formula that needs to fall into place for them to make a run. First off, they always seem to catch all the breaks in their bracket come tournament time. Then they usually win when, like you said, his upperclassmen can out-physical, out-work, and out-hustle teams. There is usually a playmaker or two that carry the team for stretches, and the experienced role players contribute just enough. Then they run into a Duke or Louisville and get exposed. Again, results, but not as free-flowing and attractive of a system for one and dones like a Kentucky or Duke.


January 27th, 2017 at 6:04 PM ^

Hoops has the same problem that afflicted the football team - not the same team on the road. We haven't won a true road game yet this season. Hard to see it happening against a desperate MSU team and a fired up Breslin crowd. I'd love to carry the momentum from last night's game, but it'll be tough.

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January 27th, 2017 at 6:49 PM ^

I agree.

We've only looked bad in two games this year; @ South Carolina and @ Illinois.

Yeah we should have won against VT, and had our chances to beat Maryland and Wisconsin, but we didn't look bad for 40 minutes in those losses. We did, however, look terrible for all 40 minutes in the two games I mentioned above. 


January 27th, 2017 at 6:58 PM ^

My hope--Michigan keeps methodically working Sparty. Bridges and Ward wear down and the Weird Guys™ can't do enough to support them. Hoping to put Ward in a lot of pick and roll/pop situations to tire him out/get him in foul trouble. Make him guard Mo out to the arc and then have some blow-bys.

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January 27th, 2017 at 7:04 PM ^

Anyone know how to watch this game after it's done (aside from DVR, which I don't have)? I'll be skiing Sunday but really wanna watch the replay Sunday night. ESPN and BTN let you watch replays on their apps, but I wasn't able to find replays on the CBS Sports app. 

Any help would be greatly appreciated!