Only two NCAA men’s basketball teams have made the Sweet 16 in each of the past five seasons. One is perennial mid-major powerhouse Gonzaga. The other is the University of Michigan, a Big Ten squad that typically flirts with mediocrity before coming into its own late in the season and scaring the bejesus out of higher-seeded teams in the tourney.
Michigan State’s formula isn’t all that different. Tom Izzo’s Spartans usually punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of a brutal non-conference schedule and the ability to jell in a timely manner down the stretch.
Such late-blooming bankability puts Michigan’s top two programs on equal footing in the eyes of major mobile sportsbooks. WynnBET has assigned both the 7-3 Wolverines and 7-4 Spartans 15/1 odds to make it to the Final Four this season, while Caesars Sportsbook slightly favors Michigan State (60/1) over Michigan (80/1) to cut the nets in Houston when all’s said and done.
Michigan State’s odds to win the Big Ten are 10/1 — behind Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, and Iowa — while Michigan is just a tick below (level with Ohio State) at 12/1. Both Michigan schools take the floor Wednesday before a bit of a holiday layoff, with the Spartans comfortably favored at home against state rival Oakland and the Wolverines underdogs on a “neutral” court in Charlotte against the Tar Heels of North Carolina.
Big test in Charlotte for Wolverines
Ranked No. 1 to start the season after finishing as last season’s national runner-up, the 8-4 Tar Heels fell out of the Top 25 by virtue of a four-game losing streak before righting the ship with wins against Georgia Tech, The Citadel, and Ohio State. While neither WynnBET nor Caesars had posted a line on the game as of Tuesday, traders for both sportsbooks expected the spread to favor North Carolina by 5 or 6 points.
“Michigan has been a very Jekyll-and-Hyde team,” said Richard Zanco, Caesars’ lead college basketball trader. “Ohio had them on the ropes earlier this year, but Michigan’s shown some heart, especially against Virginia. They just need to show up, which at times this year they haven’t. Last year, both these teams were on the outside looking in, even though Carolina made that run.”
“It’s gonna start with [Hunter] Dickinson having a big game and neutralizing the perimeter, not letting North Carolina get out and shoot a bunch of threes,” said WynnBET Senior Trader Motoi Pearson.
As it did last year, Michigan’s offense runs through Dickinson, a 7’1” junior center with a soft touch from outside who averages close to 20 points per game. He’s had plenty of help thus far from 6’8” freshman wing Jett Howard (son of head coach Juwan Howard), but a season-ending knee injury suffered by starting point guard Jaelin Llewellyn, a Princeton transfer, has left the Wolverines’ offensive cupboard thinner than anticipated.
Llewellyn’s absence means players like Kobe Bufkin and Terrance Williams will have to step up if Michigan wants to stay in the thick of the Big Ten race.
“You need the guards to accent what Dickinson’s doing,” said Pearson. “They’ve still got Jett Howard and Kobe Bufkin, but they might need to find some guys to step up off the bench. They’re still going to be talented. It’s not really a team you want to face down the stretch because we know what they’ve done in the tournament.”
Dickinson has 35/1 odds at Caesars to win the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player, and both Zanco and Pearson feel that he is the Big Ten center best equipped to play 7’4” Purdue pivot Zach Edey — currently a -150 favorite to win the Wooden Award — straight up.
Izzo always a factor for Spartans
Now ranked first in the country after an 11-0 start, Edey and the Boilermakers have been a juggernaut thus far. But the good news for both Michigan and State is that beyond Purdue, the Big Ten is “pretty open right now,” Zanco said.
The Spartans are paced by a core quartet of veterans in guards Tyson Walker and A.J. Hoggard and forwards Malik Hall and Joey Hauser. Hall is due back soon from a foot injury that’s kept him out the last three weeks, and his return will be welcomed by a team Zanco feels is lacking in depth.
That deficiency aside, Zanco observed, “Their guard play has to improve. They outplayed Gonzaga from start to finish and probably should have won that game. Izzo’s a factor — always has been since he’s been there.”
“On the defensive end, they’re gonna have to play much better if they want to hang in the Big Ten this year,” added Pearson. “I still think they have enough talent to hang in the Big Ten with Izzo.”
Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier/USA TODAY