Big Ten Banter: Previewing Michigan State - Michigan
Matthew Mitchell - MSU Athletic Communications

Tuesday marks the second instalment of the Michigan State – Michigan rivalry for the 2014-15 basketball regular season. If the first meeting between the two was any indication, no matter how the season has gone for either team so far, these games bring out the best in both teams and fans are in for a treat in Ann Arbor on Tuesday.

The first time these two met this season was back on the 1st of February in East Lansing. Both teams were coming off big wins, with Michigan State routing Rutgers on the road and Michigan having handled Nebraska in Ann Arbor. The February 1st game had everything a true basketball fan could ask for - back-and-forth action, lead changes, ferocious comebacks, and a game that came down to the final seconds in regulation.

Michigan tied the game with less than a minute to go, and the game needed overtime to decide a winner. That’s where Michigan’s luck ran out, as the Spartans put it on lockdown on the defensive end. Michigan State held the Wolverines scoreless over the five minute overtime period, rolling to a 76–66 victory over their top rivals.

Entering Tuesday night, both of these teams are going in opposite directions, which means that this game has huge implications for one team in particular.

The Michigan State Spartans come into Ann Arbor having won their last two contests, and four of their past five overall. Their last time out was a big win on Valentine’s Day over the then-number 23 Ohio State Buckeyes. The win was the Spartans’ first over a top-25 team this season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With the win, the Spartans bolstered their sub-par tournament resume, giving themselves a stronger chance of making it back to the NCAA Tournament.

Their play has been strong this season, ranking 73rd overall in the NCAA in scoring offense (72.0 ppg), and ranking 54th in terms of scoring defense (61.2 ppg allowed). They are strong on both ends of the floor, but one glaring issue is at the free-throw line. On the season, they are shooting a dismal 62.2 percent from the charity stripe as a team, and that’s where their games are won, or subsequently lost. If the Spartans can have a strong shooting game from the free-throw line, then they should come away with the win relatively easily.

However, this is a game that the Spartans cannot afford to overlook. The Michigan Wolverines are likely not making the NCAA Tournament unless they win the Big Ten tournament, which means they are ready to assume the role of spoiler down the stretch.

After knocking off the Nebraska Cornhuskers back on January 27th, the Wolverines have since lost four straight contests. The loss to the Spartans kick-started the losing streak, so the Wolverines will have revenge on their minds when they step onto the court at the Crisler Center on Tuesday night.

Two of those losses have been decided in overtime, and another was a three-point defeat on the road at Indiana. In the two overtime games, Michigan has scored a combined two points in the two overtime periods against Michigan State (0) and Illinois (2). The loss of Caris LeVert has severely hurt the team on the offensive end, and his loss can be seen in the closing minutes of their losses this season.

Regardless of the losses, the games against Michigan State mean so much more than just a win on the record. Bragging rights are something that are coveted in this rivalry, and may mean more to the respective schools than simply having a win on the record. If Michigan can salvage a season series split on Tuesday night, the season will be considered a general success.

With both teams going in different directions this season, this game is of extreme importance for both teams. Michigan State is looking for another win to stay in the conversation for an at-large tournament berth, while Michigan is looking to salvage what it can from a dismal season. The outcome of Tuesday’s game will come down to the play of two individuals, one on each side of the ball.

Players to Watch

Once again, the player to keep an eye on for the Michigan State Spartans is senior forward Branden Dawson. His statistics speak for themselves this season, as he is averaging 11.9 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. However, his lack of consistency has been a big reason for the Spartans’ roller-coaster year. He needs to be a big presence night in and night out for the Spartans, and he hasn’t done that for Tom Izzo this year. Take this past week for example when he put up 15 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks, and four assists against Ohio State, but only recorded seven points against Northwestern just four days prior. If Michigan State is going to be successful down the stretch and make it into the NCAA Tournament, Dawson will need to have performances like he did against the Buckeyes on a consistent basis. There’s no time like the present to start, and playing a weaker Michigan team is a perfect opportunity for Dawson to once again flex his muscle and lead Michigan State to another conference win, in a game they should win.

On the Michigan side of the ball, the injuries to Derrick Walton Jr and Caris LeVert forced others to have to step up their offensive game. On Tuesday, junior guard Spike Albrecht will look to continue his strong play and lead the Wolverines to a win. In his last four games, Albrecht has averaged 13.3 points and 4.8 assists per contest, both of which are up from his seasonal averages of 6.2 points and 3.6 assists per contest. Last time out against the Spartans, Spike put up a season-high 18 points in the loss, and that game kick started his recent run of strong play on the offensive end. One area of concern for Albrecht may be his ball control and ball security. Albrecht has committed three turnovers in each of his last three games. If he can minimize the turnovers and be effective on the offensive end, whether it be by scoring or ball distribution, then the Wolverines have a realistic chance of knocking off the Spartans.

--

It's games like these that are scary for teams who find themselves on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth, and that’s exactly the situation that Michigan State finds themselves in on Tuesday night. They are expected to win this contest, but the game of basketball is unpredictable on the best of nights, and anything can happen. If the Spartans win this game, they boost their tournament resume and chances of securing a bid. On the flip side, a loss to the Wolverines, which would be another suspect loss for the green and white, would severely hinder their chances of making it to the big dance. With a rematch with Illinois looming on the horizon on Sunday, the Spartans cannot afford to overlook the Wolverines. If they slip up, even just a bit, the Wolverines will be there to capitalize and won’t hesitate one bit.

Keep an eye on this game to see how Michigan State handles the pressure, and to see how Michigan plays without having the pressure of an NCAA Tournament berth riding on the contest. 

VAVEL Logo