On Saturday afternoon, the Michigan State Spartans traveled a few miles east to face off against the Michigan Wolverines in the second battle between the two rivals this season. Both teams were hoping for a win after losing on Tuesday night. Michigan fell to Ohio State and Michigan State lost to Penn State.
The game was ugly during its early segments, but picked up as the first half continued. The Wolverines got some great player from Zavier Simpson in the first half and Isaiah Livers in the second half. And while Michigan was never ahead enough for things to be out of reach, Michigan was certainly in control throughout. All told, Michigan grabbed a 77-68 over the team’s in-state rivals.
Let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. Juwan Howard had an excellent game plan for Sparty.
Ever since Cassius Winston got off on his hot streak last season, this rivalry battle has come down to Michigan’s inability to defend Michigan State’s ball screen offense. Winston and Xavier Tillman have absolutely tore up Michigan in the lane. There’s little debating this area of the game had led the Spartans to four straight wins over the Wolverines.
But on Saturday, Juwan Howard had a great plan for dealing with Winston. Instead of simply putting Simpson on him, Michigan used a variety of bodies and help when Winston drove the hoop. Eli Brooks got most of the time, but Isaiah Livers and Franz Wagner also got time and Jon Teske helped down low.
And while Michigan didn’t shut Winston down, the Spartan guard finished with a 96 offensive rating and 20 points on 21 shot equivalents. That’s about as good of a performance as you can expect against a player like Winston. It was a great day for Michigan’s defense and helped the Wolverines get a win.
2. This Michigan team looks a lot different with Livers.
This one might seem obvious, but it needs to be addressed. Livers returned to Michigan’s lineup on Saturday after missing the last three games and provided a welcome boost for the Wolverines. The forward finished with 14 points and a 130 offensive rating in his first game back with the team. It was a huge boost for a Michigan team that has struggled offensively for the last two months.
And while one game isn’t necessarily predictive for the rest of the season, it’s hard not to look at Saturday’s result and see the potential of Michigan’s team with Livers in the lineup. The Wolverines are more explosive and the team’s defense is more consistent as well with the junior forward on the floor. Six of the team’s nine losses this season have also come when Livers was out and/or limited.
Following Saturday’s win, Michigan now sits at 14-9 overall and is 5-7 in Big Ten play. However, the team seemed to have a different pep in its step on Saturday with Livers out there and has now won three of the team’s last four games. And with reeling Northwestern and Indiana teams up next, perhaps Michigan can get things rolling again with Livers back.
3. Michigan State is reeling.
Ok, maybe that title is a bit hyperbolic, but things haven’t been going well for the Spartans over the last few weeks. Despite a slow start to the season, Michigan State had things going pretty well through early January. The team was 13-3 overall and had jumped out to a 5-0 start to Big Ten play.
Unfortunately, that’s when things started falling apart.
Since reaching 5-0 in league play, Michigan State has now lost five of its last eight games and is currently amid a three-game skid. None of the five losses look bad at face value, but they’re starting to add up. And the team’s struggles on the road have started to become noteworthy, as the team is 1-4 in its last five games away from home.
Michigan State still has a decent shot to make a push toward the Big Ten title. However, if that’s going to happen, it probably needs to start on Tuesday on the road against a reeling Illinois team. It figures to be quite the battle.
4. It’s probably time to tighten up the bench.
There’s often a lot of debate out there with regard to how much teams should rely on their bench. Some believe having a deep bench is good for a team’s production over the course of a season, while others think it can be counter productive. It’s an issue that has been debated for years.
But regardless of your beliefs about that debate, Michigan State has some serious bench issues right now. And it’s not because the bench is bad. It’s because the team still hasn’t figured out its roles yet. The Spartans had eight players on the floor for at least 10 minutes in Saturday’s loss and a lot of the rotations were bizarre. The team would put out one lineup with multiple facilitators and no shooters and then put out others with a lot of size, but a lot lacking in the backcourt. It had a lot to do with why Julius Marble had an adjusted box plus minus of -27.7 and Foster Loyer had a -15.6 on Saturday. It had the feel of experimenting.
Using the bench and experimenting is perfectly fine. I mean, you’d rather figure out the rotations you want to use now than in March. But even with that said, it’s February 8th and Michigan State is amid a three-game skid. Michigan State needs to figure out the rotations it wants to use and relatively soon. This idea of relying on Tillman, Winston, and a mix of meh alongside them probably won’t lead to great results.
After a brutal loss on Tuesday night to Ohio State, Michigan fans have to be excited about the team’s win over Sparty on Saturday. The return of Livers was also a welcome site. Meanwhile, Michigan State will have to go back to the drawing board after another tough loss.
Both teams will now get a few days off before returning to action. Michigan will go on the road to face Northwestern on Wednesday while Michigan State will face Illinois on the road on Tuesday.