Michigan could not stop Cassius Winston. Again.
Michigan State stymied the Wolverines’ ball-screen game. Again.
Michigan blew a second-half lead. Again.
The difference between Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor — a 77-70 Wolverine loss — and three days ago in East Lansing? Saturday was not only for bragging rights but for a conference championship.
Michigan lost to Michigan State, 75-63, and came away with neither. The reasons why either had roots stemming from the team’s first meeting or were taken directly from the game two weeks ago.
First up: Winston — the newly-minted Big Ten Player of the Year — who scored 27 points and eight assists in the first meeting while playing from tip-off to final buzzer.
Postgame Saturday, sophomore forward Isaiah Livers was asked what the Wolverines’ biggest takeaway from two weeks prior was. He sighed and gave a no-doubter of an answer.
“Can’t let Cassius take us across the court on a ball-screen,” Livers said. “He did it again and again and again in the second half, and we had no answer for the run.”
Michigan looked to have an answer early on. Instead of hedging ball-screens — sending junior center Jon Teske with Winston on the perimeter to push him away from the basket, which the Wolverines had done in the first meeting — they switched them, taking away many of the easy assists to a wide-open roll man that Winston tallied in February.
Junior Zavier Simpson, meanwhile, was his normally rugged defensive self once again. When Winston and Simpson went at it, Michigan’s point guard usually won the battle. Winston shot just 1-for-5 with seven points in the first half.
But ultimately, Winston was too good and too much. As the Wolverines bricked their lead away, Winston — just as he had done two weeks ago — slithered around defenders and got to the rim with ease in the second half. His 23 points and seven assists led both categories.
If there’s one person who could have stopped Winston, or at least prevented him from taking total control of the game, that man was lined up across from him in a blue jersey. Simpson couldn’t, for the second time in a row. There’s no shame in that, but Simpson — who, according to freshman David DeJulius, told his team that Winston’s performance was his fault — certainly felt differently.
“We couldn’t stop him from turning the corner,” said assistant coach DeAndre Haynes. “He turned the corner at will, anytime he wanted to.”
The Wolverines had no more luck scoring off their own ball-screens. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s stroke of genius in the first matchup was switching every screen and cut off Simpson’s dribble penetration, forcing one-on-one situations. With one of its offensive staples neutralized, Michigan fell apart.
Coming into Saturday, the Wolverines were optimistic that this time would be different. They were merely caught off-guard by the Spartans’ adjustments, and with time to make their own, they would put the shoe on the other foot. Michigan was prepared to attack mismatches — such as finding Teske down low after a guard switched onto him — and show discipline on isolations.
The Wolverines did neither. Simpson missed 10 of 13 shots, including many at the rim. Teske took just five shots — the same as in February — and Michigan stopped trying to feed him. The Wolverines’ 15 points in the last 14 minutes mirrored their slump of nine points in 15 minutes in the second half of the first game.
“I thought we had a really good plan the first half,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “The second half, kids just aren’t used to (Michigan State’s defense). … Just things we gotta learn.”
Much credit belongs to Michigan State, especially Xavier Tillman. The sophomore forward showed the athleticism to shut down guards on the perimeter and the explosiveness to lock down the paint when the guards got that far, finishing with five blocked shots. Tillman was a matchup nightmare the Wolverines couldn’t wake up from.
Against players like Winston and Tillman, there’s only so much a team can do. But whatever Michigan had the chance to do, it was unable to — and the product was a result earned in a painstakingly familiar way.
“We weren’t poised when we needed to,” Beilein said. “We needed to be poised at that time and we weren’t. We didn't show.”
The regular season is over now. By the time of their first game in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines will have had five days to recover and gear up for a new phase of their campaign. They’re also likely to receive reinforcements, as redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews appears close to returning from an ankle injury for the postseason, where Michigan has historically hit its highest gear.
But if the Wolverines revert to their old tendencies like they did Saturday, if they can’t learn from their mistakes and apply those lessons in time, they’ll have a tough time finding that level.