ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When the college basketball season began, Michigan State was considered the favorite in the Big Ten with Michigan not far behind. Those roles might have flipped in the first two months, but either way, the conference title will go through the state of Michigan as the calendar turns to 2019.
Before the season officially tipped off Nov. 6, there were only three Big Ten teams ranked in the AP poll: No. 10 Michigan State, No. 19 Michigan and No. 24 Purdue. Pollsters got one thing right: Michigan and Michigan State are the two best teams in the conference.
Despite losing three stars in Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson, Michigan didn’t miss a beat when the 2018-19 season began.
John Beilein’s team cruised through the nonconference schedule, winning all 11 games with relative ease. Defending national champion Villanova was no match for Michigan on its own court, falling 73-46. That was when the country realized Michigan was a legitimate national championship candidate once again.
Since then, the Wolverines have done nothing to damage that reputation. They smacked North Carolina and Purdue by a combined 36 points in a span of four days and won every nonconference game by at least 11 points except for one — an eight-point win over Western Michigan.
A solid and pesky Northwestern team gave Michigan its greatest test, erasing a 15-point deficit to lead the No. 5 Wolverines by a bucket with under five minutes to play. Michigan finished by holding Northwestern to four points in the final five minutes and doing just enough offensively to escape with a win.
The result is a 13-0 record heading into 2019. Michigan is one of only four undefeated teams in the country, along with Virginia, Nevada and Houston.
Michigan has been battle tested with wins over three top 25 KenPom teams: No. 7 North Carolina, No. 19 Purdue and No. 21 Villanova. It has won on the road, held good teams below 60 points and eclipsed 80 points of its own four times.
Beilein has a unique collection of two-way players enjoying success in an era dominated by flashy one-and-done superstars.
Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson, who are still the heart and soul of the program, have become defensive stalwarts with passable offensive repertoires.
Jordan Poole, an exciting but mistake-prone spark off the bench as a freshman, has bought into Luke Yaklich’s defensive philosophy and is now a solid perimeter and on-ball defender. He’s also drilling 50 percent of his 3-point attempts and 51.7 percent of his shots overall.
The value of true freshman Ignas Brazdeikis can’t be overstated, either. He’s gladly shouldered the offensive load that was left in the wake of Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, leading the team with 16.5 points per game while shooting over 50 percent.
Brazdeikis is unlike most freshmen in that he’s also a willing — maybe even eager — defensive player. He takes charges. He moves his feet. He even gets the occasional steal and block.
Center was a big question mark for Michigan after Wagner’s departure, but Jon Teske has flourished as a full-time starter, scoring 7.5 points per game and playing excellent defense both at the rim and in the screen-and-roll game.
Teske averages 2.1 blocks and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Michigan doesn’t have much depth, but it has gotten good minutes off the bench from both Isaiah Livers and Eli Brooks. Livers, in particular, is a valuable member of the regular rotation, playing 21.5 minutes per game.
Livers doesn’t light up the stat sheet, but he’s a very strong and versatile defensive presence who allows Michigan to go small and turn up the offense. He’s the fourth-leading scorer and fifth-leading rebounder on the team while shooting over 50 percent from the floor and 46.5 percent from 3-point range.
Michigan’s nucleus has changed this season, but the style of play and the path it rode to No. 2 in the country are similar to the 2017-18 team.
Michigan State’s rise
Tom Izzo’s teams aren’t used to lurking in the shadows, but this year’s rise to No. 8 in the nation hasn’t come with much fanfare.
The Spartans suffered early losses to No. 5 Kansas and Louisville in November, but also gathered a collection of strong wins against Texas, Iowa and Florida — all top-50 KenPom teams.
Michigan State hasn’t had many guarantee games against non-power conference teams, but in those six games, it has won all six of those games by more than 20 points. In MSU’s 11 wins, only Florida has stayed within 10 points, and that was in a true road game.
Izzo lost two superstars from last year’s team, but he hasn’t missed Miles Bridges or Jaren Jackson Jr. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward have proven to be an even more reliable duo.
Winston leads the team with 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game while making 45 percent of his 3-point shots. About half of his shot attempts come from beyond the arc.
Ward is averaging 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while making 67.3 percent of his field goal attempts. Only Xavier Tillman, at 8.2 rebounds per game, hits the board harder than Ward for the Spartans.
Joshua Langford is averaging new career highs with 15 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
Michigan State has the fourth-best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and a solid defense that checks in at No. 25. Michigan is almost an exact inverse, with the No. 4 defense and No. 24 offense.
How they rank
Every major ranking pins Michigan and Michigan State as the top teams in the Big Ten by a decent margin.
KenPom has Michigan at No. 4 overall and Michigan State at No. 5 overall. The Sagarin ratings have Michigan State at No. 4 and Michigan at No. 7.
Michigan and Michigan State are both top eight teams in the AP and Coaches polls, and most bracket projections have them tabbed as top two seeds.
Other Big Ten contenders
After a weak 2017-18 season that saw just four Big Ten teams get into the NCAA Tournament, the conference roared back with a vengeance in nonconference play.
Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the AP poll, more than any other conference. There are 11 Big Ten teams ranked in the KenPom top 50, and most predictions have 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament as the field stands on New Year’s Day.
Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin appear to be the most dangerous competitors at this point. All three are 2-0 in conference play and ranked in the top 25. OSU only has one loss this season, and Indiana has only dropped games at Arkansas and Duke.
Michigan is fortunate that it doesn’t have to play road games against Ohio State, Purdue or Nebraska this season, however it has home and away games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland.
Michigan State only plays once against Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State, Northwestern and Illinois.
If the Big Ten regular season title is truly between Michigan and Michigan State, it will come down to the final weeks of the season.
The in-state rivals won’t see each other until the last week of February, when the Spartans travel to Ann Arbor on Feb. 24. The rematch in East Lansing is March 9, the last day of the regular season.
Michigan won both of the head-to-head meetings last season, winning by 10 points in East Lansing and by 11 points in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
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