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

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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.

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?