Many games over the next few days will make or break a program’s season, and Michigan State is teetering on that knife edge. For the first time in his 26 seasons coaching in East Lansing, since taking over for Jud Heathcote, Tom Izzo will sport a sub-.500 record in the Big Ten Conference.
The spiral is serious. The Spartans (14-10, 8-10) likely require a few triumphs in the conference tournament to even get into the NCAA Tournament. March Madness is about to transpire on the court and in every sportsbook, and the NCAA-betting frenzy has already commenced.
For this regular-season finale in the Breslin Center, there is absolutely nothing to play for … unless pride matters. For a guy like Izzo, that matters plenty. Defending the home court, the program, the campus and the city matters.
- Michigan -9 at Michigan State, Total 139, Sunday, 4:30 pm ET
- Action: Under 139
With 4 minutes, 35 seconds remaining Thursday night inside Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Wolverines senior forward Isaiah Livers had just hit a fade-away jumper for a 64-38 advantage. Izzo called for a timeout, before the inevitable TV break in about 40 or 50 seconds.
His guys headed for the Michigan State bench. Izzo just closed his eyes and shook his head. THAT sums up the season for the Spartans.
But that’s what Michigan State has become, and then some. Thursday against the rival, the Spartans were selfish, sloppy and stupid, passing up open teammates, making dopey decisions and launching even dopier shots.Izzo has got to be embarrassed. He takes pride in the toughness his team typically shows every season. This version, though, is soft. It yields the baseline so frequently it’s as it’s never been taught the Golden Rule about keeping that avenue closed.
They missed all nine 3-point shots they launched. Only junior forward Aaron Henry, with 14, registered double digits in points. Moreover, it’s early March, and the jury is still way out on the point-guard capabilities of Rocket Watts.
Sparty is a mess, and here come the dynamic Big Ten-champion Wolverines (18-2, 13-2) into their house.
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Dickinson-Wagner Show the Way
Michigan has blossomed from the preseason unranked and unwashed into a titan, destined for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, under second-year coach Juwan Howard.
In both of its defeats, Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson both tallied single figures in points. As they prosper, so do the Wolverines. Thursday night, Wagner had 19 points and six rebounds, Dickinson 14 and 10.
Sparty had no low-post answers. Michigan ran away from Michigan State early in the second half, when Mike Smith’s 3-pointer from the right side was sandwiched between two Dickinson dunks, pumping their edge to 49-32.
As the Wolverines were making it 54-36, veteran broadcaster Dick Vitale became Mr. Obvious. “This has really not been a vintage Michigan State team, let’s be real about it.”
The stark reality is that Michigan entered Thursday’s game with the nation’s second-ranked 2-point-shooting defense, allowing foes a paltry 41.6%. The Spartans only shot 36.4% in a game that meant everything to their coach.
What will sting Michigan State is the fact that the Wolverines’ 2-point defense on the road is top-20 caliber, limiting foes to 44.6%.
Analyzing the Big Ten-only statistics reveals just as gloomy of a picture for Sparty. In the league, Michigan is No. 1 in free-throw shooting (77.8%), No. 2 in 2-point touch (51.6%) and No. 3 beyond the arc (40.1%). The Spartans are second in defending long-range shots, at 30.3%.
However, the Spartans’ offense against the Wolverines’ defense is no match, by any analytic, so we’ll bypass those figures in the interest of not dumping drums of sea salt in those open wounds in East Lansing.
Heathcote protégé Izzo took control of the Michigan State program in 1995-96. Michigan visited Breslin that season and traipsed away with a 76-54 victory. The following season, Michigan won by 13 points. It won by five the next season.
Little by little at Breslin, Izzo figured out his chief foe. Then he dominated. On his own court, Izzo has beaten Michigan 16 of the past 19 times. The average score in those 19 tilts has been 75-61, in Sparty’s favor.
In only one of the previous 20 games at Breslin, the Spartans would not have covered as a nine-point underdog, the early line for Sunday’s game.
Michigan had experienced similar woes at Ohio State, but it won at Columbus recently. This has a similar feel, minus the Wolverines-Buckeyes explosiveness.
The past performances in East Lansing make taking those points tempting, but the overriding vision for the game is that of a rock fight, trench warfare. A low-scoring bruising affair. Izzo figures to at least fire up his charges to be enforcers on defense, but that offense is too undependable.
The Under, by far, is the most appealing option.
For Izzo headshakes, though, bank on the Over.