On Sunday afternoon, the Michigan Wolverines traveled a few miles west to face off against the Michigan State Spartans in the first of two regular season rivalry games between the two this year. Both teams entered the game with active winning streaks and in search of another marquee win. Sunday’s matchup also marked Juwan Howard’s first game against the Spartans as the Michigan’s head coach.
Early on, it looked like it could be an absolute battle. Jon Teske was carrying Michigan down low and Cassius Winston was making plays in the lane for the Spartans. However, some quality play from Michigan State combined with some foul trouble and inefficient shooting for Michigan allowed the Spartans to pull away. All told, Michigan State grabbed a 87-69 win over their arch-rival.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. When all else fails, go to Cassius Winston.
Calling Winston a great player isn’t exactly a controversial statement. He was the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and many thought he could be good enough to win some national player of the year awards this season as well. Winston is a proven and experienced player that most coaches would kill to have on their roster.
And we saw what a player like that can do in a marquee game on Sunday afternoon. Michigan started with Zavier Simpson on him, but ultimately tried a handful of different defenders to slow him down. None of them could slow down the Spartan guard. All told, he finished with an impressive 32 points and nine assists in the matchup.
Who knows how things will finish with Michigan State this season, but if Winston continues to play like this, bet against this team at your own peril.
2. People wrote off the Spartans far too early.
After Michigan State’s lackluster performance in Maui and its loss to Duke to open December, many around the country ripped this team left and right. Some insinuated the Spartans had been a fraud coming into the season and wouldn’t be able to deliver on the program’s lofty preseason expectations.
Meanwhile, this is what I was telling Spartan fans:
Last night was another great example of why MSU fans are overreacting to a few early losses. Duke goes down at home to Stephen F. Austin. When that kind of stuff starts happening, we can talk. Spartans are doing just fine.— Thomas Beindit (@tbeindit) November 27, 2019
Fast forward a month and Michigan State is now red hot and playing like one of the best teams in the country. The Spartans remain undefeated in Big Ten play and have won seven straight, including three against top 50 opponents. And considering how Ohio State has looked lately, it’s hard to think anybody sits in a better position to win the Big Ten than the Spartans as of January 5th.
This might come off as a bit too “I told you so,” but it’s worth acknowledging here. The Spartans are a great team and had a few missteps early. It happens in college basketball. The question now is how long the team can keep things rolling. We’ll start to find out next Thursday at home against Minnesota.
3. There’s no reason to panic over this Michigan team.
As every Big Ten fan knows, winning on the road in conference play is easier said than done. And when it’s against a rival ranked in the top 15, it’s even tougher. The Wolverines not only had that challenge on Sunday, but had to do it without Isaiah Livers, who’s arguably been the team’s best offensive player so far this season. When those are the circumstances, it’s hard to see things ending well.
Michigan was able to stay in the game for much of the afternoon, but just never had enough offensively to keep up with Winston and the Spartans. And while Livers wasn’t the only reason Michigan lost, it certainly played a role. Michigan desperately could have used another perimeter threat to help spread the floor.
Following the loss, Michigan now sits at 10-4 overall. The Wolverines have lost the team’s last three games against quality opponents, but this is still a good team in perfectly fine shape for making the NCAAs. And with some big games coming up later this month, don’t be shocked if Michigan bounces back with authority.
4. Michigan probably needs to figure out its rotations a bit more.
Before we talk about Michigan’s rotations in this game, it’s important to acknowledge two things. First, the fact that Livers was out for Sunday’s matchup. Anytime you have limited options available, things might be look a little bizarre. Additionally, Michigan had some early foul trouble that necessitated putting some guys on the bench.
With all that said, Michigan really needs to flesh out some of its rotations moving forward. Using your bench is a great thing and should generally be encouraged. But in a game like this on the road, it was bizarre to see Michigan so insistent on using a two-big lineup for much of the game and Howard’s decision to put Teske and Franz Wagner on the bench for key stretches in the second half.
Howard knows his team better than we do and deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, one has to think Michigan might shorten its bench in the weeks to come, especially if/when Livers returns to the lineup. If so, Michigan would likely be better positioned to come out on top against opponents like Michigan State.
Sunday’s matchup proved to be a statement win for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. Winston led the team from opening tip and proved too much for Simpson and his fellow Wolverines. The win marked Michigan State’s fourth straight win in the series.
Both teams will now be off until next Thursday, when Michigan State hosts Minnesota and Michigan hosts Purdue. Both matchups figure to be tight ones.