The stakes have never been this high for a mid-February rivalry game.
The Wolverines (8-3 Big Ten, 21-3 overall) and the Spartans (9-2, 20-4) have faced off 169 times in the rivalry’s history, and just nine of those matchups have come when both teams were in the Top 25. And until Tuesday’s game, both teams have never both been ranked in the Associated Press’ top 10.
Though rankings don’t have significant implications at this point in the season — there’s still a month left in the regular season — the matchup in East Lansing has more substance than who stays in the top 10 at the end of the week.
“It’s the Big Ten title on the line,” said sophomore guard Trey Burke. “Two top-10 teams going at it, and Michigan-Michigan State (is) one of the biggest rivalries in college basketball.”
Tuesday’s game will also decide whether or not Michigan will regain control of its destiny on the road to the Big Ten regular-season title. Currently, Indiana and Michigan State sit in first place at 9-2 in conference play, with Michigan and Wisconsin in second place at 8-3. Ohio State isn’t far behind in third at 7-4. All year, Big Ten coaches have stressed the depth and strength of the conference and predicted that the eventual champion wouldn’t come away with fewer than four conference losses.
The tough conference slate hasn’t been kind to the Wolverines. Michigan has dropped two of its past three games — both on the road — and has faced two ranked opponents in the past 10 days. Though Michigan coach John Beilein doesn’t like to point out certain games as “must-wins,” a road victory tonight would put them in better shape towards the ultimate goal of a Big Ten title.
But it’s not easy to play at the Breslin Center. The Spartans have won 12 of the past 13 games against the Wolverines at home — Michigan State’s lone loss was a 61-57 decision in 2011 when former guard Stu Douglass hit a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left to all but seal the win for Michigan. Tuesday’s game will most likely be just as close.
This season, the Wolverines have suffered two close losses in equally hostile arenas — at Assembly Hall to Indiana and at the Kohl Center to Wisconsin. Beilein thinks that his young team has learned to handle a raucous crowd.
“I think it’s always new and exciting (to play at a loud arena, but) at the same time, it’s not as shocking as it was the first time,” Beilein said. “I’m sure our guys were shocked when we went to Bradley. ... There’s always a level of maturation along with (playing in front of a sold-out crowd).”
With a sold-out Breslin Center awaiting the top-10 matchup between two talent-studded rosters, each player will need to do his part on both sides of the ball.
The two matchups that Michigan will need to win are the point guard position — Burke against Keith Appling — and the battle in the paint with Wolverine freshman Mitch McGary and redshirt sophomore Jon Horford opposing the Spartan trio of Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
Burke — arguably the best point guard in the nation — has been getting a lot of attention from opposing teams. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, one of the nation’s elite defenders, seemed to shut Burke down when matched up one-on-one, but the sophomore still tallied 18 points.
But Appling, Michigan State’s leading scorer and one of the conference’s best defenders, will still be a handful for Burke. Both Burke and Appling have the ability to not only score, but create opportunities for their teammates — both point guards are in the top five in assists per game in the Big Ten.
“Burke really makes a difference for those other guys,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “(Freshman guard Nik) Stauskas will be a really good player, but boy, Burke makes him a great player because he just gets him the ball in the right place at the right time. I don’t think we’ve seen a guy who can pull a game like Burke has in a long time in this league.
“When you can shoot it or pass it, it really makes a difference, and he’s able to do both as well as any.”
Though Michigan State might not be as strong at the point guard position as Michigan, the Spartans’ strength lies in the interior. Nix, Payne and Dawson all average over nine points per game and are significant forces on the boards, as each grab over six rebounds per game. Nix and Payne are often in the game together, and their height and strength will be difficult for Michigan to match up against, as the Wolverines aren’t expected to have redshirt junior Jordan Morgan playing significant minutes on Tuesday.
In addition, the Wolverines haven’t always been a strong rebounding team and have struggled keeping up on the boards against more physical big men. McGary and Horford have given Michigan viable options in lieu of Morgan, but McGary’s inexperience and a lack of a strong defensive presence are where the Wolverine big men struggle.
“It’s very important to stop their bigs,” said junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. “They do a good job of scoring in the low post with Nix, Payne and Dawson. A lot of their points come off second-chance shots, so once the shot goes up, we have to do a great job being physical and boxing them out and limit them to one-shot opportunities. They’re a great offensive rebounding team, so we just got to do a great job helping our bigs out.”