On left, the Wolverines will need more offense than the 10 points that Glenn Robinson III scored against the Spartans in two games last season. On right, Gary Harris scored 17 points in last year's game at Breslin Center and 16 points in the loss at Crisler Center. (John T. Greilick | Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — Two of the top teams in the nation and the only unbeaten teams in the Big Ten square off tonight at Breslin Center and ESPN is in town for “College GameDay,” adding to the electric atmosphere.
But those are just side notes.
After all, this is Michigan-Michigan State. It’s always been about bragging rights, and until last year, that was about it.
Things, however, have started to change. Once dominated by the Spartans, the Wolverines have started to make the series competitive, winning four of the last six and capping off last season with a trip to the national title game.
In two meetings last year, both teams were ranked in the top 10 and the home team won each time. And while the rankings say it might not be as tight this year — Michigan State is No. 3 and Michigan is No. 21 — the teams are unbeaten in conference play.
“It’s huge with the way the conference has been so far,” Michigan State guard Gary Harris said. “It’s the only two teams in first place and this will be huge if we want to win the Big Ten championship.”
Before last season, this game rarely had such implications. But even as Michigan State was dominating, coach Tom Izzo longed for a rivalry that matched Duke and North Carolina.
“That’s what everybody’s wanted, that’s what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “Rivalries aren’t rivalries if both teams aren’t good enough to win. They’ve got a very good team, they’re doing a lot of good things, they’ve got seven or eight guys playing pretty well. Yet, we’ve got a good team, too, and it’s gonna be an interesting one.”
19 straight wins
Michigan enters the game winners of eight straight, including its last two over then-No. 3 Wisconsin on the road and at home over No. 10 Iowa.
Michigan State has won 11 straight and hasn’t lost since early December.
The Spartans, however, are hurting. Branden Dawson is out 4-5 weeks with a broken right hand suffered Thursday, and Adreian Payne is expected to miss his fifth straight game with a sprained right foot.
“It’s really sad to hear about Dawson because he’s such a good player,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Obviously Payne, to go through this in his senior year, that doesn’t seem right. At any rate, hopefully they’re going to be back in time for March because they can do great things in March both for themselves and the league.
“It changes matchups, but not a great deal. They’re going to run the same plays; they’re going to pound it at you and play really good defense. ... We’re trying to find weak links to attack and we can’t find them. They’re just good.”
Michigan State is allowing 63.9 points a game, but Michigan has been effective on offense, scoring 77.2. The Wolverines have managed to do so without center Mitch McGary, who may be out for the season after undergoing back surgery.
In his absence, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas has been outstanding and leads the Big Ten in scoring (18.5 points).
One of the top 3-point shooters in the game (44 percent), Stauskas has become a more complete player after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA. He has added some muscle and is now quick enough to attack the basket.
“He is different,” Izzo said. “I think he handles the ball more, I think he makes more plays. Last year he was just a stand-in-the-corner guy and could really shoot it. I think now he has become more of a creator.”
Teams split in 2013
The teams will be hard-pressed to match last season’s meetings.
Michigan won a thriller by one point in Ann Arbor while Michigan State rolled to a 23-point victory at a wild Breslin Center.
It’s an atmosphere that likely will be replicated tonight, but Beilein isn’t as worried about the crowd or the fact it is a big rivalry.
In fact, he likened tonight’s matchup to any other big game.
“We go into every game like it’s the last game and it’s the biggest rivalry of all-time,” he said. “We walked out on Nebraska and Minnesota, Duke and Iowa State (courts). For our fans, this is a huge thing — and it’s huge for us — we just play so many games.
“I want our guys to be the same every game.”
But the fact remains, this isn’t like any other game.
Izzo understands that and, even shorthanded, is ready to jump into it.
“(The hype) is more about the water coolers, the bragging rights, the alums, the coaches, definitely, the players,” he said. “I think it’s more about that. And now the fact that both teams are so good it brings a national flavor and that’s why ‘GameDay’ is here and that’s why there’s so much excitement.”
Michigan wins if it ...
■Defends and rebounds
■Has multiple scorers
By the numbers
Key statistics for Michigan and Michigan State (stats for Big Ten games only):
|38.6||Def. shooting pct.||45.1|
|33.6||Def. 3-point pct.||29.4|
Beat the Spartans at their own game: Michigan might have to mimic Michigan State’s style of defending and rebounding. The Wolverines are fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (63.7 points) while the Spartans are second in scoring offense (79.9). And, without Branden Dawson (second in rebounding) and possibly Adreian Payne (fourth), the Spartans could be short on the glass. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford will have to be active.
Poise, poise, poise: In the blowout loss at Breslin Center last season, Michigan was unfocused and in awe of the environment. As they’ve done in many crucial road games, the Wolverines can’t fall into an early deficit and try to dig out. They’ll have some redemption on their minds, but have to balance that emotion so they’re not too amped up early.
Three for the show: The Wolverines need to have three solid scoring options. This game could define leading scorer Nik Stauskas’ legacy at Michigan. Caris LeVert has four games with 20-plus points — this may need to be the fifth. With Brandon Dawson out, Glenn Robinson III needs to produce more than the two points he had last year. And if Jordan Morgan gets going on the pick-and-roll, he could become a factor.
Michigan State keys
Get the ball in the post: Even if it doesn’t result in many points, the Spartans must get the ball on the block. Without Branden Dawson and likely Adreian Payne, they have few low-post options — and the Wolverines know it. Michigan State is a good shooting team, but without a viable option inside that Michigan must pay attention to, room to shoot becomes difficult to find.
Take away the shooter: It’s one of Michigan State’s primary goals defensively, and against Michigan, that primarily means containing G Nik Stauskas. He has scored better than 20 points each of the last three games and has hit 10 3-pointers during that span. Stauskas leads the Big Ten in scoring (18.5 points), and he made great strides in the offseason, adding the ability to get to the basket and making him even more difficult to guard.
Grind it out: The Spartans have been finding ways to win even though they have not been 100 percent. They have been without Gary Harris, Matt Costello and Travis Trice at various points and have missed Adreian Payne the last four games, today likely being the fifth. Now with F Branden Dawson (broken hand) out, the Spartans will need to scrap once again. G Keith Appling has been the one constant, and he’ll likely be called on to play virtually every minute in order for Michigan State to come out on top.