The stage is set.
Not that the second act of the thrilling Michigan-Michigan State drama needed any more intrigue, but it got it, with the Minnesota Golden Gophers knocking off then-first place Purdue Boilermakers to set up a showdown for a share of the Big Ten regular-season title in East Lansing.
The equation is simple, as the winner of the rivalry showdown will stroll out of the Breslin Center with not just the Big Ten crown, but also the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Big Ten tournament.
MSU head coach Tom Izzo called the matchup the biggest in the history of the Breslin Center, Cassius Winston simply summed up the situation and opportunity as “crazy,” but no matter how one may describe the moment, the second top-10 matchup between these rivals is sure to be memorable.
Act one of the blockbuster hit was stolen by the No. 9 Spartans in upset fashion when they went into Ann Arbor and completed a monumental effort to win 77-70 over No. 7 Michigan. The matchup was only the third rivalry game when both teams were ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll, Saturday’s will mark the fourth.
In need of any more intrigue? It’s Senior Night, and emotions will be running high for two of Michigan State’s passionate leaders in Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. The game has been flexed to a prime-time tipoff of 8 p.m. and will be nationally televised. Let’s not forget NCAA tournament seeding implications on the line and all the bragging rights that come with a heated rivalry game.
After losing their conference lead with a loss to struggling Indiana last week, this is not how the Spartans envisioned it. Nevertheless they will once again have an opportunity to control their own destiny for a second straight Big Ten regular-season championship, and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament would make for an optimal package deal.
Here are three keys for the Spartans headed into one of the most exciting Michigan-Michigan State rivalry contests in the 182-game series:
The likes of Winston, Goins and McQuaid compiled impressive scoring numbers in the first matchup at Michigan, with the star point guard posting 27 points and the two seniors putting up 29 points combined.
The only problem: Winston played the entire 40-minute span of the game, with Goins and McQuaid playing 38 and 37 minutes respectively. Izzo hinted at possible fatigue with Winston after the Nebraska game, bringing up the junior’s lingering tendinitis that has plagued him all season long.
Winston had an uncharacteristic game against the Cornhuskers, only scoring eight points and not making a 3-pointer on the game. He did dish out 10 assists though, acting as more of a distributor due to the inability to get his legs into his jumper or get to the rim with ease.
Scrappy Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson, who many call the “head of the snake” in the Wolverines defense, will look to further wear down Winston on both ends, which he was unable to do in the first game.
Freshman Foster Loyer will need to give the Spartans a handful of productive minutes in order to rest Winston, who will be once again challenged against the best defensive guard in the Big Ten. Winston won the first battle in Ann Arbor, but he will face a more-inspired Simpson and have to operate through fatigue.
Turning to the wings, junior Kyle Ahrens is questionable for Saturday’s game after not appearing against Nebraska. Even if Ahrens is able to play, his minutes will be restricted and he will surely face fatigue as well. Gabe Brown, who only played five minutes at Michigan, will be relied on heavily to potentially fill in again for Ahrens and give Goins and McQuaid rest after high usage in game one.
Tethering the turnovers
Michigan State committed a season-low six turnovers in the first game, only surrendering two in the second half. It was a massive x-factor in a victory for a team that struggles with giving up the ball, averaging over 13 turnovers per game.
The Wolverines boast one of the most ferocious defenses in the nation, only allowing 58.3 points per game while forcing 12.2 turnovers per contest. Defensive-minded assistant coach Luke Yaklich will look to bring the pressure and refocus his defense after allowing the Spartans to shoot 50 percent in game one.
Cassius, Cassius, Cassius…
Given that the elite point guard is the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year and an emerging candidate for college player of the year, it’s easy to say that the Spartans must get him going in order to beat their rival for the second game in a row.
But the Wolverines’ ball-screen defense simply couldn’t stop Winston from doing damage in the first game, as he went off for 27 points and eight assists. The game may have been the best passing performance in the college career of Winston, as he made the right reads in the ball-screen game every time and was in complete control for a full 40 minutes.
The one facet Winston struggled with was his 3-point shooting, as he went 0-for-3 from behind the arc due in part to Michigan center Jon Teske forcing him off the 3-point line in the high ball screen. Despite the cold night for the 42-percent shooter from deep, he was able to get involved in a number of other ways to torch the Wolverines.
The Spartans will surely need another gargantuan effort from their star point guard to grab another victory over their rival, who will most definitely come out of the gates with a more team-oriented and intense defensive effort.
You can listen to the 183rd matchup of these two bitter rivals live on the radio in the Lansing area, just tune in to 88.9 FM for what’s widely expected to be one of the best games in college basketball this season.