Key Questions Heading into Michigan vs. Michigan State Today

Posted by Brendan Brody & Alex Moscoso on January 25th, 2014

Well, this is it. The final two undefeated teams in conference play will go head-to-head tonight in East Lansing. The Spartans will have the advantage of playing in the raucous Breslin Center, but they’ll be shorthanded since both Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are expected to miss the game. Michigan, on the other hand, doesn’t have Mitch McGary to man the post, but Nik Stauskus has been red hot offensively and the team appear to have moved on from its early season troubles. Two of our Big Ten microsite writers, Brendan Brody and Alex Moscoso, tackle the big questions headed into the game.

All eyes are on the Big Ten this weekend, as Michigan and Michigan State face off for first place in the league.

All eyes are on the Big Ten this weekend, as Michigan and Michigan State face off for first place in the league.

Michigan State is a top 10 defensive unit but their two best defensive players (Dawson and Payne) are likely to be out for the game. Michigan, on the other hand, is an elite offensive team. Will the Spartans be able to slow down the Wolverines given their injuries?

BB: The Michigan offense has been really impressive lately, and Michigan State might have had problems slowing them down even with Dawson and Payne in uniform tonight. Without those two seeing action, I just don’t know how they can hinder the Wolverines from scoring essentially whenever they want. Stauskas has been the best player in the conference over the last several weeks, but this team has much more weaponry than their sophomore assassin to call upon. Caris LeVert and/or Glenn Robinson III should have a huge advantage as the Spartans are going to have to use either a small guard like Travis Trice or with some combination of Kenny Kaminski/Russell Byrd to defend them. Big men like Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford aren’t strong offensively, but everyone else that gets significant playing time can score the ball from a multitude of different spots on the floor. Unless they go into some horrific shooting funk where they can’t make anything, Michigan will not be slowed down offensively tonight.

AM: The losses of Payne and Dawson definitely do not help; there’s no getting around that. But since this game is taking place at the Breslin Center, it should be pointed out that the Wolverines’ offensive efficiency has averaged 1.04 points per possession on the road against conference opponents. This is a big drop from the 1.20 PPP that Michigan’s offense has been averaging on the season, and that offense will undertake its biggest test yet against a defense who holds their opponents to 0.87 PPP in East Lansing. For the Wolverines, their main option scoring down low is Horford, and while he’s a nice piece, he’s certainly not setting the world on fire. On the perimeter, Russell Byrd will likely get the additional minutes because of Dawson’s injury and he’ll need to step defenisvely along with teammates Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine. I’m going to put my trust in Tom Izzo and bet he gets his defense to play well enough to hold Michigan to just below a point per possession, which would slow the Wolverines down just enough to let the Spartans make a stand at home and take full control of the Big Ten race.

On the Big Ten Network, Jim Jackson identified Keith Appling and Nik Stauskas as contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year. Which one of these players is likely to have the better performance tonight?

BB: As I mentioned above, Stauskas has been incredible lately. He has an offensive rating of 132.0 in his six B1G games, and has done so on 50.7 percent shooting from the field. He has shown off an ability to score while shooting threes, hitting from 15-18 feet, and getting to the basket. His confidence seems to be growing on a daily basis. If the Spartans managed to take away his scoring chances, he’s also leading the team in assists. Stauskas has no problem spreading the wealth around if Sparty removes his open looks. Appling has been banged up, but my money would be on Stauskas continuing to build upon his burgeoning B1G Player of the Year campaign.

AM: There’s a reason Jim Jackson went with Keith Appling as his Big Ten POY instead of Stauskas or the Spartans’ leading scorer, Gary Harris. Appling has transformed himself from a scoring guard into a complete point guard — he runs the offense and also sets up his teammates to be in the best possible position to score. The Spartans have been injury-plagued throughout the season; yet, through all that, they have continued to play at a high level and rack up 18 wins. The reason: Appling has been there in every game to make sure the Spartans’ offense continues to run smoothly. This year, he is averaging a career high in points (15.6 PPG) and assists (4.6 APG) and has his lowest turnover rate since his freshman year (2.1 TOPG). Appling probably won’t have more points than Stauskas, but if we look at the whole picture, I’ll bet it’s he who has most helped his team in all facets of the game and leads the injury-plagued Spartans to victory once again.

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