The Michigan men’s basketball team’s season-defining stretch was supposed to be the four games between Feb. 2 and Feb. 12 — three road games, three games against ranked opponents: Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State. It was supposed to be a showcase of dominance, swagger and style.
But after faltering in the last four minutes at Penn State on Wednesday night, struggling to beat Illinois and the Nittany Lions last week in Ann Arbor, the fourth-ranked Wolverines have another stretch that could be more telling than their previous tough set of games.
Michigan (10-5 Big Ten, 23-5 overall) still has two games against the Big Ten’s top two teams — No. 9 Michigan State and No. 1 Indiana — and though it’s all but out of the race for the conference title, Michigan is still playing for a top-four seed in the Big Ten Tournament and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament later in March. So this stretch might be more telling than the previous one.
The Wolverines host the Spartans (11-4, 22-6) on Sunday, and though Michigan State put a 75-52 drubbing on Michigan in East Lansing on Feb. 12, the Spartans are on a small slide of their own. Michigan State has dropped its past two games, and both coaches are concerned about the way their teams have been playing recently.
“We didn’t play with the same energy in the last couple games that we need to play with,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo in a Monday teleconference. “This week, we’re going to work on getting back to who we are and what the program stands for because we didn’t guard like a team needs to guard in the last three games.”
Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “We played like we had two pianos on our back at Michigan State, that was the one that was most glaring to us. After the Wisconsin loss, we weren’t acting, we were reacting too much. We had to just go out and make the cuts that we make. … We emphasized in practice, ‘This is our style of play, let’s go back to it.’ ”
Though the Spartans have faced stiffer competition in Indiana and Ohio State, their backcourt has struggled offensively as well. Point guard Keith Appling, who played well against Michigan while keeping sophomore guard Trey Burke in check defensively, has gone on a dry spell in recent games.
Appling has tallied nine combined points on 2-of-14 shooting in the past two games and the junior hasn’t done a great job distributing the ball, recording just six assists. He typically averages 13.4 points per game — he’s the team’s leading scorer — and four assists per game.
But freshman guard Gary Harris has stepped up in Appling’s scoring absence. Harris has shot a 50-percent clip from the field and has led Michigan State in scoring its past two games. The freshman hit five of his nine 3-pointers in the Spartans’ win over Michigan, and Izzo has acknowledged Harris’s impressive showing with the team’s inconsistent play as of late.
For Michigan, turnovers have become an issue as of late. Sophomore guard Trey Burke, who averages 1.9 turnovers per game, coughed the ball up a season-high six times against Penn State. As a whole, the Wolverines committed 15 turnovers, compared to the six they had the first time they faced the Nittany Lions.
Burke hasn’t gotten the offensive help of his teammates in recent games, as well. The sophomore has dominated each of the past three games offensively — scoring 18, 26 and 19 points, respectively — and the Wolverine frontcourt, with a healthy Jordan Morgan, hasn’t produced like it did at the beginning of the conference season, especially in rebounding. With the sophomore at the helm of the offense, protecting the ball down the stretch and grabbing boards will help Michigan maintain a lead and close out games.
“It is a cardinal sin here to turn the ball over in practice,” Beilein said. “If I look at the Big Ten overall, I think every team really takes care of the ball. It’s essential to winning, just like rebounding — it’s an extra possession, either offensively or defensively, (and) so is a lack of a turnover. It’s an extra possession for you.”
Despite the recent slide for both teams, the matchup on Sunday is a must-win of sorts for each team — Michigan State can keep its sights on a Big Ten championship, and Michigan will add a résumé-boosting win over one of the best teams in the nation. But as both Izzo and Beilein noted, if either the Spartans or Wolverines want to stop their recent slides, they’ll have to get back to playing their style of play.
“If you can’t get up for No. 1 in the country (Indiana), if you can’t prepare to play your best basketball, then something’s not motivating in your ticker, there’s something missing,” Izzo said. “We did play well against Michigan (on Feb. 12), but since then, we’ve had some issues that we’ve had to deal with. Now we can get back to doing things the way we’re supposed to.”