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Best Bets: Previewing Michigan-Louisville and Michigan State-Duke

Lipscomb v Louisville

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 12: Jordan Nwora #33 of the Louisville Cardinals dunks the ball against the Lipscomb Bisons at KFC YUM! Center on December 12, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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No. 4 MICHIGAN at No. 1 LOUISVILLE, 7:30 p.m. ET

  • SPREAD: Louisville (-5.5)
  • TOTAL: 140
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Louisville 72.75, Michigan 67.25
  • KENPOM: Louisville 72, Michigan 64
  • TICKETS: Click here

Before we get into the actual basketball, we have to tackle the narratives.

Because there are quite a few.

For starters, this is a battle of top five teams in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but we all expected the top five show down to be the game that is being played later. So that’s fun, almost as fun as the new No. 1 team in the country - Louisville - taking on the team that was the trendy pick to receive that honor after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis - Michigan. And that is before you get into the stuff that doesn’t involve both teams: Like Chris Mack getting Louisville back to a No. 1 ranking in a year and a half, or Juwan Howard coaching the biggest game of his Wolverine tenure less than a month in.

This is what sports talk radio dreams of.

And then there is the actual matchup itself, which is even more interesting.

For me, the guy that nerds out about this stuff, the key to this game is going to come down to two things, and both involve Zavier Simpson.

Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball for Michigan, where Howard has really not changed all that much in terms of what Michigan does. He’s added some of his own wrinkles and flavor into the Michigan offense, but the truth is that the Wolverines are still one of the most ball-screen reliant teams in college basketball, and they are still running quite a few of the same sets that Beilein brought with him to Ann Arbor.

And they are great at this. I’ve mentioned it over and over again in the last week. Simpson and Jon Teske are both really good at what they are asked to do in ball-screens, and when you surround them with guys that are making 50 percent of their threes ... good luck.

Where this gets interesting is that Chris Mack is, along with Tony Bennett and Sean Miller, one of the foremost proponents of the Pack-Line Defense in college basketball, and one of the tenets of the Pack-Line is hedging ball-screens hard. This is, in theory, the exact opposite of the way you want to defend someone like Simpson, whose shooting is not exactly a strength but who is an exceptional passer. We’ll see how that plays out.

On the other side of the ball, the biggest question mark for the Cardinals this season is and always has been the point guard spot. Freshman David Johnson is back, but he’s playing limited minutes, which means that it is still Darius Perry leading the way with Fresh Kimble working as his primary backup. None of that is ideal when going up against an on-ball defender like Simpson, especially when Michigan is one of the teams in the country that can match up with both Louisville’s size and athleticism.

Another key: The matchup at the four. Isaiah Livers is bigger, strong and more athletic than Jordan Nwora, but Nwora has beaten guys that are bigger, stronger and more athletic before.

But to be frank, at this point in the year, I think that a lot of that matchup stuff can be thrown out the window. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in college basketball and he has a staff that can tweak what they do to tailer it to a specific game-plan.

And while I think Michigan is the best team in the country, they did play three games in three days over the Thanksgiving holiday, and after flying home from the Bahamas have to turn around and fly into Louisville. That’s strenuous.

PICK: This line opened at Michigan (+7) and is already down to Michigan (+5.5) as of this writing. It will be interesting to see where it ends up closing. I would probably lean Michigan (+5.5).

No. 10 DUKE at No. 11 MICHIGAN STATE, 9:30 p.m. ET

  • SPREAD: Michigan State (-6)
  • TOTAL: 146.5
  • IMPLIED SCORE: Michigan State 76.25, Duke 70.25
  • KENPOM: Michigan State 75, Duke 70
  • TICKETS: Click here

I think that Michigan State should be able to win pretty easily here, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

Michigan State runs a ton of ball-screens, and Duke has struggled to defend those actions this year, especially against Stephen F. Austin. Michigan State has the size inside to deal with Vernon Carey. Duke does not have the shooting to spread them out the way that Virginia Tech did.

But the biggest concern for Michigan State here is not how they matchup with Duke, it’s whether or not Tom Izzo will buy into the way they need to play if they want to be at their best. Duke is, at the very least, going to try and spread them out, and if Izzo insists on playing Thomas Kithier, Julian Marble and Marcus Bingham at the four, I think he’ll be playing a suboptimal lineup. For my money, Michigan State’s best five will have Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman and Aaron Henry on the floor with two of Rocket Watts, Kyle Ahrens and Gabe Brown.

We’ll see how often we see that group.

PICK: Michigan State has already gone from (-5) to (-6). Get it as quick as possible.