Michigan’s win at No. 4 Michigan State a sign of two programs trending in opposite directions

Rob Dauster
NBC Sports

Last year, the final time that Michigan squared off with Michigan State, the Wolverines pounded the Spartans.

The game was played in the Crisler Center, and it was never really in doubt. Michigan – then considered a team sitting squarely on the bubble – won by 29 points, sparking a three-game winning streak that turned their season around. They won six of their last eight games in the regular season, stormed through the Big Ten tournament, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed, upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round and came within a missed Derrick Wilson jumper of playing Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four.

When the narrative of the 2017-18 Michigan season gets told, Saturday’s performance at No. 4 Michigan State may be the turning point that we point to once again.

The Wolverines beat up on the No. 4 Spartans, winning 82-72 behind 27 points from Mo Wagner and 16 points and five assists from Zavier Simpson, who thoroughly outplayed counterpart Cassius Winston despite missing four straight free throws in the final two minutes that left the door open for a Michigan State comeback that never materialized.

This is by far the best win for John Beilein’s team this season, and it came in a way that we haven’t exactly become accustomed to: With defense.

Beilein’s built his career around being one of college basketball’s best offensive minds. His teams were built around floor-spacing and taking advantage of the three-ball before it became the trendy way to play. Remember Kevin Pittsnoggle? Remember his West Virginia teams? Remember the way that he surrounded Trey Burke with shooters on shooters on shooters? Even last year’s team finished the season as the fourth-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom.

One of the most surprising sub-plots of the college basketball season is that this year’s Michigan team, one that, until Saturday, started Duncan Robinson alongside Wagner on the front line. Neither of those two players are known for their defensive prowess – it’s one of the biggest reasons Wagner is still in school and not playing in the NBA – but Beilein has stil managed to turn this group into the best defensive team that he has ever had.

Michigan State finished with 18 turnovers on Saturday, corralling just eight offensive rebounds and scoring 72 points on 69 possessions, and those numbers are slightly inflate by a flurry of points and possessions that came once the game was already in hand. The Wolverines mixed up their defenses, completely eliminated Nick Ward as an offensive weapon and kept college basketball’s best front line from finding a way to win on the glass or gain advantage in the paint. Winston was flustered throughout, and the Spartans shot just 3-for-13 from beyond the arc.

And with it came the win you can pin at the top of Michigan’s résumé. They’re in third place and two games out of first place in the Big Ten regular season race, so I’m not sure if they can be called a contender to win that just yet, but as long as they don’t do anything stupid over the final seven weeks of the regular season, they’ll be dancing.

But the bigger question to ask here is just what this loss – and Wednesday’s overtime win over Rutgers at home, and last Sunday’s blowout loss at Ohio State – is what’s going on with Spartans. Michigan exposed some issues that have been bubbling underneath the surface for Tom Izzo’s team since as far back as the Champions Classic.

One issue is the lack of an alpha. There is no one on this Michigan State roster that has shown the ability or the willingness to take a game by the balls, or throw the team on his back, or provide the necessary in-game leadership they’re lacking. There are 1,000 clichés that can be used, but the point is simple: When Michigan State is struggling, when there is a lack of confidence on the floor or when they aren’t playing the way that they should be, who is going to make that momentum-changing play? Who is going to be the spark they need?

The easy answer there would be Miles Bridges, but he has not been that guy. Part of the reason for that is that he just simply isn’t wired that way. He’s uber-talented and wildly athletic, a guy that deserves all of the hype that he gets as a potential lottery pick this season, but the truth is that he projects as a role player at the next level.

Hell, he really is a role player at this level.

What I mean by that is that when he’s at his best, he’s not a guy that’s going to get you 30 points on a given night. He’s not a guy that you’re going to run every offensive possession through. That’s just not his game. What makes him special is his ability to impact every aspect of the game. He can score. He can rebound. He can pass. He can defend just about every possession on the floor. He makes threes. He can post up. He score off the dribble.

That’s just a fact.

The problem with Bridges isn’t that he’s not scoring, and it isn’t even that he’s being played out of position, which is an idea that has been bounced around by a number of people this season. The issue is that he has not been the most active player on the floor every time that he has stepped on the floor.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said one member of a staff that has played against Bridges this season. “Just coasts, and seems quite content.”

Bridges’ impact on a game is directly correlated with the energy that he plays with, whether it’s at the three or the four. There may be some justification to the idea that playing him at the four would make Bridges less inclined to settle for threes – which is a bad habit he’s fallen into – but I don’t necessarily think it’s an automatic fix.

And here’s the most concerning part of it all.

Many of these problems are the same problems we saw with Michigan State last season.

Michigan State has a lot of questions they are going to have to answer in the coming days and months, but the more I watch this group, the more I think that Izzo is not going to like the answers that he gets.

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