East Lansing — Last season, the rivalry between Michigan and Michigan State reached a crescendo, as the teams met in the Big Ten Tournament championship game for the first time.
Michigan was playing for a likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament; Michigan State was trying to earn a high seed and end the Wolverines string of six wins in eight meetings in the series.
Michigan State won, and both teams reached the Elite Eight.
But in the 10 months since, things have changed — drastically.
For the first time in eight meetings, neither team is ranked in the Top 25 heading into Sunday's game at Breslin Center. In fact, both teams are teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble and need a win to improve their postseason resume.
But the intensity and immediacy of the rivalry still trumps the faraway thoughts of the postseason, putting the bubble thoughts on the back burner, at least for one game.
"The old cliché is, 'Keep it one game a time,' " Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Who is kidding who? There are games that are bigger than others."
For Spartans junior Matt Costello, the game is about pride and erasing the recent advantage the Wolverines have gained, winning three of the last four.
"It's the Michigan game; it doesn't matter if we've (been bad) all season or they (have been bad) all season — this is a big game for both teams," said Costello, 2-3 against Michigan. "We need to step up and get to it."
Both teams also are coming off subpar nonconference seasons. Michigan State lost to Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame and Texas Southern. Michigan has losses to Villanova, NJIT and Eastern Michigan.
The struggles this season are a somewhat predictable outcome after each team lost players to the NBA — Michigan State's Adreian Payne and Gary Harris and Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III (Jordan Morgan graduated and is playing overseas).
That left the Wolverines with an inexperienced lineup, compounded by recent injuries.
"They've had transition, too," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Gary Harris was a great player. Payne, really good player. (Keith) Appling a McDonald's All-America. ... They're going through some transition — certainly not as much as us — but it's the same Michigan State."
The Wolverines are trying to find their way with a revamped lineup that includes five freshmen. Leading scorer Caris LeVert, a preseason all-Big Ten selection, is out for the season with a fractured foot and Derrick Walton Jr. (foot) is questionable for Sunday's matchup.
"Practice to practice, it's been very difficult to know what you're going to have," Beilein said. "This has been one of those years where we've been hit with a lot of strange things, whether it's an injury or a sickness or something.
"We've just got to keep plowing through it with persistence. Things will evolve and we'll be better from all of it."
Walton is averaging 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3 assists and if he can't play, it would be a blow to the Wolverines, as Walton keyed the late surge last year at Breslin Center. But freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman picked up the slack in the start on Tuesday, tying his season high with nine points and another freshman, Aubrey Dawkins, scored 13.
"They're hungry. They want to prove that they don't need this player or this player to win (because of injuries). But we're hungry too. We're 14-7, we've had multiple games where it's come down to the last possession and we've lost those games," MSU junior Denzel Valentine said. "So we're hungry too and we've got to make a statement from this game on throughout the year.
"It's not just them. We're playing in front of our home crowd and haven't given them a good game to enjoy in a while, so this is a chance for us to make a statement."