| The Detroit News
By the time Michigan’s seniors were exiting the court on Thursday night, the game with Michigan State had long been decided.
The lead shrank a bit by the time the horn sounded, but whether it was a 19-point loss or closer to the 28-point margin that existed earlier in the second half, it was clear the Wolverines were the superior team as they locked up the Big Ten title and likely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
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Still, as frustrated as Michigan State was, coach Tom Izzo sounded confident afterward that there were enough signs the Spartans could turn things around quickly. They’ll get that chance at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Breslin Center as the rivals meet to close the regular season.
Michigan State could lock up a tournament bid with a win, but there will have to be some significant improvements. At the top of the list is playing a full 40 minutes, something that’s tougher to do when you’re playing your seventh game in 15 days. But the fact is, Michigan was the more aggressive team while the Spartans looked worn out.
How much does that change with two days off between games? That’s tough to gauge, but there are specific ways Michigan State needs to play better. Being tired doesn’t help any of them, but there’s no alternative at this point. The Spartans will have to ride Aaron Henry as long as they can and hope some others put the ball in the basket.
How do they do that? Here are three keys:
Move the ball
There’s no real secret here. When Michigan State is moving and sharing the ball on offense, it becomes one of the more efficient offenses in the Big Ten. There have been moments this season when the Spartans have done so, namely early in non-conference play and last week against Ohio State. However, too often this season, the offense breaks down to one-on-one play and forced perimeter shots. That happened regularly on Thursday as the ball stuck and a guy like Gabe Brown took only two shots in 28 minutes. Get the ball moving, get some shots for a guy like Brown and some easier looks for Joshua Langford and Joey Hauser, and things could shift.
Point of attack
Michigan State has struggled all season to get consistent point guard play, and it’s continued to be an issue for the last three games. With Foster Loyer out for the rest of the season, it’s all on Rocket Watts and A.J. Hoggard. Watts played well last week in wins over Indiana, Illinois and Ohio State, but has taken a step back the past three games, sitting the last 17 minutes against Michigan after failing to dive for a loose ball. Michigan State needs him to play like he did a week ago when he was 7-for-17 shooting with seven assists and one turnover in 63 minutes against Indiana and Illinois. Since then, he’s 6-for-29 with two assists and five turnovers. Using Henry and Langford at the point is fine in theory, but both are already carrying a major load. Getting something out of Watts could be critical.
Going with a small lineup presents its set of defensive challenges, especially of Joey Hauser spends any time at the center position. But it’s been clear over the last two weeks that what amounts to a four-guard lineup has been Michigan State’s best bet on offense. Whether it’s Watts or Hoggard at the point, Henry, Langford and Brown at the same time has proven effective. Hauser and Malik Hall will be important, too, and all the centers could be used again to defend Hunter Dickinson, but if the Spartans want to keep up offensively, going small is the deal.
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