Over the last week, the Michigan men”s basketball team has turned some heads around the Big Ten with road wins against then-No. 14 Iowa and Northwestern and a four-point home loss to No. 6 Illinois, a team that beat the Wolverines by 29 in Champaign.
“They”re playing some of their best ball that they”ve played in two or three years,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
The biggest key to the turn-around for the Wolverines has been handling the ball better on offense. Michigan (3-4 Big Ten, 9-9 overall) has cut down on turnovers, averaging just over 13 a game over the last three games, as opposed to the almost 20 a game they were averaging before that.
“We are playing smarter,” Big Ten co-player of the week LaVell Blanchard said. “We”ve cut back on a lot of little things like turnovers, and we”ve won. And that”s what we need to do to keep winning.”
The Wolverines” recent success has the Michigan players believing that they can beat No. 5 Michigan State (5-2, 16-2) tonight.
“Earlier on in the season, I don”t know if we believed we could play with the ranked teams, but then we came out and beat Iowa. So now, we know we can,” sophomore Gavin Groninger said. “We know that every game we have an opportunity to win, and that”s going to be good for our confidence.”
But if there is any question whether or not the Wolverines” 51-point loss to the Spartans last season is still burning in its collective brain, one only needs to check the Michigan lockerroom, where an assistant coach tacked the number on the bulletin board.
“It”s time to get some payback,” freshman Avery Queen said. “51 is no joke.”
But Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe would rather focus on this season and tonight”s game between the two in-state rivals.
“I try to forget last year,” Ellerbe said. “We”ve got a totally different team. We are younger than we were, and I think they are deeper than they were But there is nothing we can discuss about last year that can help us right now.”
To beat the Spartans this time around, the Wolverines will have to continue to cut down on turnovers, get back on defense to guard against Michigan State”s transition game and stop the Spartans on the glass. For the third-straight year, Michigan State leads the nation in rebounding margin. The Spartans dominate their opponents on the boards, outrebounding them by an average of 16.5 rebounds per game, and they do it at both ends.
Michigan State has grabbed 290 offensive rebounds to its opponents” 311 defensive ones. That means that the Spartans rebound 48.5 percent of their own missed shots.
“We can”t let them get inside position,” Young said. “Every time a shot goes up we have to find our man and put a body on him.”
Another key for Michigan will be stopping sophomore Jason Richardson, who leads the Spartans with 16 points per game in Big Ten play while shooting 59 percent from the field.
The Wolverines will have to stop the swingman from getting to the basket while still respecting an outside shot that has allowed him to sink half (15-of-30) of his 3-point attempts over the last seven games.
“He is big-time player,” Ellerbe said. “With big-time players, you try to limit their opportunities. I don”t think you ever stop them.”
For Michigan to win, it will take a monumental effort. Every single player will have to be firing on all cylinders and completely focused on the task of beating the heavily favored Spartans.
“We have to play our best basketball of the year to win,” Ellerbe said.