On Saturday afternoon. the Michigan Wolverines went on the road to East Lansing for its lone (scheduled) matchup against the Michigan State Spartans this season. It figured to be a tight game between two rivals.
But, while many were picking the Spartans to win in convincing fashion, that wasn’t the case. Michigan came out with a focused effort and gave the Spartan backcourt some major struggles. Zavier Simpson led the Wolverines on the defensive side of the floor and Moritz Wagner added 27 points and four rebounds.
All told, Michigan scored an 82-72 road win over the Spartans in what is easily Michigan’s best win of the season. This was Michigan State’s second loss in the last three games. The lone win came against Rutgers at home in overtime.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. This was John Beilein at his best.
While the players always deserve the lion’s share of the credit for wins like this, it would be misleading to pretend like coaching didn’t play a huge role in Saturday’s result. Beilein had his team ready to go and put his players in position to succeed for much of the afternoon.
The biggest spot where Beilein and his coaching staff’s impact was so noticeable was on the defensive side of the floor. Early on, he used double teams to disrupt Nick Ward down low that were really effective. And as the game continued, Beilein made a great decision to glue Charles Matthews to Miles Bridges in the game’s final minutes. He forced the Spartans to rely on an inconsistent Jaren Jackson to get the job done.
Michigan State certainly had the more talented roster on Saturday, but Michigan had the better game plan. And, thanks to that plan, the Wolverines grabbed a huge win.
2. Moritz Wagner is still a monster, when he needs to be.
Earlier this season, there were a plethora of articles about how Michigan State had one of the best frontcourts in program history. With Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, and Nick Ward, it was a force to be reckoned with for opponents.
But, on Saturday, it was Wagner who had the upper hand.
From the start of the game, Wagner was in attack mode. He forced Ward to defend him across the floor and Ward didn’t have an answer. In fact, on one particular play, Wagner ended up leaving Ward lying on the floor watching him make a bucket.
All told, Wagner finished with 27 points and a 154 offensive rating. He roasted Michigan State’s defense in route to a career day. Wagner may not be good every night, but when he is good, he can be very good.
3. Michigan State still has a turnover problem.
Heading into this season, there was no bigger concern than what would happen in the team’s backcourt. It was an inconsistent group last season that needed to improve. In fact, I wrote the following in my season preview:
The team also has some major questions in its backcourt. While Langford, McQuaid, and Winston all return, Michigan State needs to find a way to improve its guard play. The team struggled with turnovers last season and relied on a rotating cast of characters to get the job done. If Michigan State is going to take a step forward, the backcourt needs to improve its play. Most eyes will be on Winston as the x-factor for this year’s team.
There’s little debating that those concerns popped up once again on Saturday. Michigan State ended up turning the ball over 18 times and fueled Michigan’s offense on the road in a tough environment. Cassius Winston had a rough game and other backcourt players like Tum Tum Nairn and Joshua Langford weren’t much better. Add in that Nick Ward struggled to pass as well and the issues were substantial.
Michigan State still has time to improve its backcourt, but this is still the issue that can derail what should have been a banner season. These issues aren’t going to show up against the garbage Michigan State played against in December, but it will show up when the Spartans face teams with great defensive backcourts. And those are the teams that Michigan State needs to beat to win a national title.
4. The season is far from over for Michigan State.
Fans always like to overreact to singular games, but it’s important to remember that it’s still January. Of course, these reactions are exacerbated by the fact that Michigan State lost its second straight game to arch-rival Michigan on its home floor.
But, even if fans are angry, it’s important to remember that the Spartans have more than enough time to get back on track. Winning a Big Ten title will be immensely difficult with a two-game deficit to Purdue already, but this team can still earn a solid seed to the NCAA Tournament and make a Final Four run.
Over the next few weeks, Michigan State should get an easier slate, which should allow the Spartans to get back on track. If Tom Izzo and his staff can get the backcourt fixed, this season could still be a special one for the program.
Saturday’s game came with a surprising result, but one that showed some strengths and flaws on both sides. Michigan scored a massive road win over a rival and Michigan State is forced to look at itself and try to get better going forward.
Michigan will now move on to face Maryland at home on Monday and Michigan State will have some time off before facing Indiana at home next Friday night.