East Lansing – The first week of January is an odd time for a college basketball player in his senior season to start thinking about doing something for the last time.
The season is two months old and conference play has barely begun, but the feeling came over Cassius Winston Friday afternoon as he sat on the visitor’s bench in a mostly empty Breslin Center. Only hours after a 20-point win over Illinois, the Spartans had just completed a walk-through – one of two practices that would take place on this day – as they began the quick turnaround for their next opponent.
This is a good point to offer a reminder to ignore some of the clichés that might come out over the next couple of days. No, the next opponent is not just any other opponent. Sophomore Gabe Brown talked about every game being the same, and to some extent, he’s right.
But early Sunday afternoon No. 14 Michigan State will host No. 12 Michigan, and if anyone thinks that’s just any game, well, they haven’t been paying attention.
The rivalry has always been intense, no matter the sport. It’s been no different on the court as momentum in the series has shifted back and forth over the years. But in the last two, in particular, the Michigan-Michigan State battles have directly impacted not only the Big Ten race, but they’ve been an indicator of which team is on the verge of a deep March run.
Two years ago, Michigan got the best of a talented Michigan State team, winning the only regular-season matchup in East Lansing then beating the Spartans in the Big Ten tournament semifinals before marching all the way to the national championship game. Last season, Michigan State swung it back, sweeping the regular-season series, then beating the Wolverines in the conference tournament title game before eventually reaching the Final Four.
The fact he was preparing to face Michigan for the final time on his home court in less than 48 hours was clearly something Winston wasn’t thinking about, but it forced him to pause for a brief second.
“Yeah, it's crazy” Winston said. “Just (thinking) how far I’ve come, how many times I've played them. Last year we had a pretty good year, but before that we didn't have very good one, so we’ll try to try end this one on top.”
A win or a loss in the first week of a new year is hardly a guarantee of what will happen over the next three months. Still, it’s hard to ignore what these games have meant and appear as if they will again this season.
Michigan State (11-3, 3-0 Big Ten) was the preseason No. 1 team in the country, and despite a couple of tough losses and the injury to guard Joshua Langford, many believe the Spartans are still a Final Four caliber team. Michigan (10-3, 1-1), meanwhile, was unranked entering the season as Juwan Howard was about to begin his first season replacing John Beilein on the Wolverines’ bench.
It didn’t take long for the Wolverines to prove there would be little to no drop-off as they rolled to an impressive win in the Battle 4 Atlantis, crushing North Carolina and Gonzaga before getting knocked down a peg with losses in three of the next four to the likes of Louisville, Illinois and Oregon.
In other words, everything that has been at stake the past couple of seasons feels like it’s all on the table once again.
“The rivalry itself never changes,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo pointed out Friday.
What also hasn’t changed is how critical Winston is to his team’s success, the same going for Michigan’s senior point guard, Zavier Simpson.
Neither played huge roles in their freshmen year when the Spartans and Wolverines split the series, each winning at home. But Michigan’s run in 2017-18 followed by Michigan State’s control last season hinged almost completely on who got the best of the point guard matchup.
Two years ago, it was Simpson who scored 31 points and handed out seven assists in two games while Winston scored 11 in each of the two games, never truly finding a rhythm against Simpson. Last year, though, Winston dominated, averaging 21.3 points and 8.7 assists over three games while Simpson was held to six points in each of the final two meetings.
“That’s just what goes into our team winning,” Winston said. “That's both our jobs for our teams. If I play well there is a good chance my team has the best chance to win. If he plays well, his team has the best chance of winning.
“So it almost looks like a one-on-one matchup, but it's just us doing what's best for our team. We both have to play well for our team to win.”
Both have been playing well through the first two months. Winston is third in the Big Ten, averaging 17.8 points a game, and he ranks fourth with 6.1 assists a game. Simpson is scoring 11.2 points a game and leads the Big Ten with 8.9 assists a game, while both are top five in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s our straw that stirs the drink and Zavier's their straw that stirs the drink,” Izzo said of Winston and Simpson. “They're different players in some ways, but their value to the team is very similar. So do they negate each other? I don't think either one of them will negate each other, but I think that how well one or both of them play will have a big impact on the game.”
As Winston pointed out, while it might seem like a one-on-one battle, it’s not. Michigan is shooting the ball well but the status of forward Isaiah Livers is unclear as he battles a groin injury. Michigan State, meanwhile, feels like it played its most complete game in the win over Illinois on Thursday.
So, the Wolverines will need to keep hitting shots and the Spartans will have to remain connected even as the stakes are raised.
“It's a lot more energy,” Brown conceded. “I know that for a fact. There's a lot more energy when it comes to this rivalry.”
It also happens to include a marquee point guard matchup that has almost always lived up to the hype. Sunday is the first chance it has to deliver again with at least one more meeting coming in February.
“I think both our teams are playing pretty well right now,” Winston said. “So it should be a pretty good matchup.”
Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off: Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: No. 12 Michigan (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten); No. 14 Michigan State (11-3, 3-0)
TV/radio: CBS/760, 950