staff, February 13, 2013

In the first 2013 installment of an intense rivalry, Michigan State humiliated Michigan by 23 points, a margin that belies how truly dominant Tom Izzo's team was. The lead touched 31 points before garbage time began, and Michigan's deep reserves made a run to bring the margin down at the final buzzer.

This was something of a bizarro game, as the turnover-prone Spartans took exquisite care of the ball, while the Wolverines threw the ball all over the court. That, along with a dreadful one for 11 shooting night from Tim Hardaway Jr., was enough to limit Michigan to its worst offensive output in nearly three years. Credit Michigan State's defense and its outstanding ability to switch ball screens.

Other than Hardaway, the Wolverines actually shot fairly well, and they got a fair number of opportunities at the rim. Unfortunately, Michigan State is quite good at challenging those shots, and Michigan was only able to convert half of those rim looks. When taking out the three shots that were blocked, Michigan's finishing rate was a much better 60 percent.

Layups/dunks/tip-ins 9 18 50% 34%
Two-point jumpers 6 16 38% 30%
Threes 6 19 32% 36%

The Spartans, on the other hand, shot well from all over the court, even knocking down 40 percent of their two-point jumpers. When that kind of accuracy is coupled with such a minuscule turnover rate, fantastic efficiency results. This now makes three consecutive games for Michigan State with a turnover rate under 14 percent–could this finally be a Tom Izzo squad that doesn't have a turnover problem? You don't expect a tiger to change its stripes, and this could be more of a result of the environment in which the Spartans are playing. Of the 32 D1 conferences, the Big Ten ranks 31st in turnover rate. It seems Big Ten coaches have abandoned the idea of forcing turnovers as a core defensive strategy, focusing instead on field goal defense and rebounding. It will be fascinating when a B1G team inevitably faces VCU's Havoc in the NCAA tournament.

Layups/dunks/tip-ins 15 22 68% 35%
Two-point jumpers 8 20 40% 32%
Threes 7 20 35% 32%

I must admit, I had been doubting the Spartans as a true Big Ten title contender. It's not that I didn't think Michigan State was good–after all, I was more bullish on the Spartans than my fellow Geek in the preseason–but the lack of domination against a few weaker foes gave me pause. It's now abundantly clear that Michigan State is in this race to win it.

Team Projected B1G Wins
Indiana 14.3
Michigan State 13.5
Michigan 12.9
Wisconsin 12.8
Ohio State 11.4

Using KenPom win expectancy numbers, the most recent projection for Big Ten wins shows Indiana with just a slight advantage over Michigan State, with the rest of the contenders trailing. There's still a lot to be determined, and we shouldn't count out Michigan just yet, as its schedule gets much easier from here. The Wolverines play four of their final six at home, and the road games are completely winnable (Penn State and Purdue). Michigan already has four conference losses, but that total might not change between now and the season's final day, when the Wolverines host Indiana. Needless to say, the next three-and-a-half weeks should make for compelling viewing.

Tonight, it's a doubleheader on BTN, starting with the 6pm CT tip of Nebraska at Indiana. Tim Miles has his Huskers playing hard (and he's up on internet memes), but that can only take a team so far. Expect Indiana to cruise at home.

At 8pm CT, Illinois hopes to avoid a letdown and avenge its earlier loss to Purdue. The Boilermakers have the conference's best two-point percentage defense, and the Illini score few of their points inside,  so this figures to be a game decided on the perimeter. Illinois is favored by eight, but don't be surprised if it's closer than that.