East Lansing — Everyone knows what’s coming on Sunday.
It’s the first of two meetings between Michigan State and Michigan that will take place in the final two weeks of the regular season. For the last couple of months, it’s what fans of both teams have been pointing toward.
Tied for first place in the Big Ten and both ranked in the top 10 in the nation, the game in Ann Arbor this weekend followed by the rematch March 9 in East Lansing are among the most highly anticipated games between the rivals in recent memory. In fact, Sunday’s game will be the first top-10 matchup since 2013 when the teams split their two meetings, both as top-10 teams.
It’s hard to avoid the buzz that’s starting to build.
Of course, both teams have another game to play before Sunday and if ever there was a trap game it might be No. 10 Michigan State’s matchup at home with Rutgers on Wednesday night while No. 7 Michigan heads to Minnesota on Thursday.
But things have changed significantly for the Spartans in the last couple of days. Junior center Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left shooting hand in Sunday’s victory over Ohio State and had surgery that night. He’ll be out for an indefinite period, including both of this week’s games.
In an odd way, it might have removed any chance at looking past the Scarlet Knights, though coach Tom Izzo isn’t exactly buying into the theory. Based on the volatile nature of the Big Ten this season, looking past any team, regardless of circumstance, is not wise.
“If anybody is dumb enough on my team to look at the Big Ten as we’ve looked at it,” Izzo said. “We’ve had the worst two teams in the league beat the best two teams. We’ve had upsets if that’s what you want to call them. If we need that at this time of the year we’re probably in trouble.
“All I know is from my coaching staff and from my training staff and from anybody that touches a player, the focus will be on Rutgers for this week, Michigan for (the weekend), Indiana the week after and it’s one game at a time now.
“That would be a good question to ask the players but if they say yes, shame on them. Tell them your coach says you’ve got a problem.”
It probably will make Izzo happy to know that none of his players were feeling sorry for themselves after practice on Monday evening.
After all, the Spartans (21-5, 12-3 Big Ten) have been down this road already this season. After minor injuries to Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens, the news that Joshua Langford would be lost for the season was deflating to the Spartans, who then lost the next two games — at home to Indiana and at Illinois as part of a three-game skid.
There’s no room for a similar response to Ward’s absence.
“I think it also is just that it’s the point of the season we’re in,” guard Cassius Winston said. “There’s not much you can do about it. He’s a great force, a really good player for this team, but at this point we don’t have time to be sad about it. We’ve got a lot of things we have to accomplish. People gotta step up in a big way so we can accomplish those things.”
The first item on the to-do list is getting past Rutgers on Wednesday.
The Scarlet Knights (12-13, 5-10) are looking for their own sort of bounce back following a crushing last-second defeat at home Iowa, which got a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer by freshman Joe Weiskamp to erase Geo Baker’s go-ahead three just seconds earlier.
Rediscovering the positive vibes will be a challenge for the Scarlet Knights, who have won just one of the last five games after a three-game winning streak.
“I love the enthusiasm around our program,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “Our guys keep getting better. There are some exciting opportunities coming up with some huge games in front of us.
“We're on to the next challenge. Michigan State is the best team in the league. They've got really good players and a Hall of Fame coach. They'll be ready and well-coached. They play really good at home. It's unfortunate for them that they have some injuries, but they have some very talented players ready to step in off the bench as well.”
If those players step up, Michigan State will be on its way to avoiding the dreaded “trap game,” and can turn its attention to Michigan and competing for the Big Ten championship.
And that is the position the Spartans will gladly take, no matter who’s healthy enough to play.
“We’re not playing with house money, as they say,” Izzo said. “We put ourselves in a position where we are fighting for a Big Ten championship. We’ve been in this position a lot of times here. … That’s the goal of the program — be in a position, and we’re in that position.
“So, pity party (for) Nick, pity party (for) Josh. Those two guys gave us a lot, one is gonna miss the rest of the year, one is gonna miss a significant amount of time. The only party that I’d like to get, I’d like to have a party Wednesday night. Make sure all 15,000 are there celebrating, because we’re gonna need our team to play better. Our crowds, I think the last three or four games have been unbelievable, they got to ratchet it up another notch, too, because we need every little point we can get. We get those points, we’re gonna keep on truckin.”
Rutgers at No. 10 Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Rutgers 12-13, 5-10 Big Ten; Michigan State 21-5, 12-3
Outlook: Michigan State is a perfect 8-0 against Rutgers, including a 78-67 victory at Rutgers on Dec. 30. … According to KenPom.com, Rutgers' strength of schedule ranks 19th nationally. The Scarlet Knights have beaten one ranked team (No. 16 Ohio State), as well as two wins over opponents receiving votes (Miami, Nebraska). … Rutgers ranks 20th nationally in offensive rebounds (13.08), leads the Big Ten in offensive boards and is third in total rebounds.