The craziness that is the Big Ten this season continues on Saturday with an in-state rivalry game between the No. 10 Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines. An earlier game between the two teams had to be postponed, but they are finally set to meet with both teams within two games of first place in a crowded Big Ten.
Michigan’s season has already included plenty of ups and downs, although the Wolverines are trending upward at the moment. Juwan Howard’s team has won three in a row, including lopsided wins over Maryland and Indiana before surviving a close game with Northwestern earlier this week. With those wins, Michigan is back in the Big Ten race at 4-3 despite a somewhat disappointing 10-7 overall record.
The biggest strength for the Wolverines this season has been their size in the paint. Big man Hunter Dickinson is having another big season, improving on his production from last year by averaging 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Of course, he had a subpar game against Northwestern, which is why the game was a little closer than expected. The good news for the Wolverines is that freshman forward Caleb Houstan has made an instant impact, averaging over 10 points per game and 17.7 points per game in Michigan’s last three wins. Fellow freshman Moussa Diabate also adds size and athleticism to the frontcourt, not to mention an excellent rebounder at 6’11’’. With Terrence Williams and Brandon Johns, Michigan has even more frontcourt depth and some much-needed experience to turn to if the two freshmen are struggling.
Meanwhile, the Michigan backcourt is led by fifth-year senior Eli Brooks. Despite a few subpar games recently, he’s been steady all season, averaging 11.5 points and 2.7 assists per game. Coastal Carolina transfer DeVante’ Jones has added another ball-handler who is giving the Wolverines 8.8 points and four assists per game. Jones has also been key to Michigan’s turnaround over the last few games. However, Michigan’s backcourt depth has been limited this season. Freshmen Kobe Bufkin and Frankie Collins haven’t made much of an impact, which is why the Wolverines tend to play bigger lineups and need Brooks and Jones to perform at a high level every night.
The Spartans have fallen just a little over the past couple of weeks, losing two of their last three games. To be fair, they lost a close one to Illinois earlier this week. Michigan State also had an impressive win over Wisconsin last week. However, Tom Izzo’s team would prefer to get back on track quickly, especially after losing their last home game.
A lack of production from the Michigan State backcourt was the biggest reason why the Spartans lost to Illinois. Freshman Max Christie had just two points in one of the worst performances of his young career. The point guard tandem of Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard also struggled in that game. While neither is a big-time scorer for MSU, the Spartans typically need more than nine points and eight assists from those two players, especially with Christie struggling to get going. Freshman Jaden Atkins was also scoreless against Illinois despite scoring 10 points against Wisconsin. He’s been largely unreliable this season, which is why the Spartans can’t afford off nights from starters like Christie and Walker.
On the bright side, Michigan State is well stocked in the frontcourt and the wing. Gabe Brown is the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game and their best shooter. MSU has also gotten good consistently from Marcus Bingham and Malik Hall, who are both averaging 9.8 points per game and are consistent rebounders. Joey Hauser has also been a key X-factor for the Spartans, as he’s taking a smaller role this season but he can be a difference-maker. He’s also been great on the boards lately, which has been a strength of the Spartans all season. However, Michigan State doesn’t have a lot of high-volume scorers outside of Brown, so if they get into a shootout, they need all hands on deck and everyone contributing something.
There are a surprising number of similarities between the Spartans and the Wolverines. Both teams tend to play bigger lineups while lacking elite guard play. Likewise, both teams have freshmen in key roles with the Wolverines relying a little more on their younger players to make an impact. That could make it difficult for Michigan to get a win on the road against the Spartans. But while Michigan State has faltered lately, the Wolverines are heating up, opening the door for a potential upset.
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