MSU, Michigan meet in top-10 clash at Crisler

It’s finally here. No. 10 Michigan State and No. 7 Michigan play the first of their two regular-season matchups in Ann Arbor on Sunday. With both teams sitting at 13-3 in the conference, it’s also the first of two games that will likely decide the outcome of the Big Ten regular-season title.

The two teams have been on this collision course for months, as Michigan got off to a 17-0 start and MSU won nine of its first 10 conference games to take an early lead in the Big Ten race.

“When two big schools are both doing well in the same state, yeah, it means a little more,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. “It probably always will mean a little more and it probably always has meant a little more.”

The last five years have seen big swings in the momentum of the rivalry, as Michigan has won each of the last three encounters, including a 75-64 victory in last year’s Big Ten conference tournament semifinals. However, since the start of 2013, the two have split their last 12 matchups.

However, neither of these teams are exactly similar to last year’s counterparts. Gone are a handful of NBA-level players in Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mo Wagner. Michigan has seen a balanced scoring attack in conference play, as each of U-M’s five starters have averaged 10-plus points a game in conference play. Meanwhile, this will be MSU’s second game without junior forward Nick Ward as he recovers from a fracture in his left hand.

Both teams head into Sunday on a winning run. The Wolverines closed out Minnesota on the road 69-60 back on Thursday, while MSU knocked off Rutgers at home the night before.

Much will be made of the point guard battle between Cassius Winston and Michigan’s Zavier Simpson. The two are Detroit natives and have faced each other for most of their basketball careers. Simpson is one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players and has limited Winston in each of their meetings to date. Last March, Winston had just 11 points and 5 assists on 3-of-10 shooting. A better night from Winston is a must if MSU wants to snap its three-game losing streak.

“Last year, they got us on a lot of little plays,” Winston said. “Their guys made some big plays…when you’re playing a good team, you can’t afford to make mistakes.”

Against Minnesota, sophomore guard Jordan Poole led the Wolverines in scoring with 22 points, making 5 of his 10 3-point attempts. Poole can be a volatile scorer, but the 6-foot-5 Milwaukee, Wis. native is Michigan’s best offensive threat when things are going right. Elsewhere, senior Charles Matthews has been in double figures in four of the last five games and takes the highest percentage of U-M’s shots.

When Michigan State has the ball…

A lot of Sunday’s game will rest on Winston’s shoulders. Ball screens with Winston and Xavier Tillman was a large portion of Wednesday’s second-half offense, and getting Matt McQuaid going from the outside will be crucial to take some of the scoring responsibility off of Winston. Problem is, Michigan’s 3-point defense sits at 30.2 percent in conference play – good for third-best.

With Michigan’s ability to control the tempo at home with its defense, taking care of the ball also has to be a top priority. MSU has been better with that since their 24-turnover showing at Illinois earlier this month, but with Simpson’s defensive ability, he has the potential to disrupt MSU’s offense.

Want an X-factor? Look no further than Kenny Goins. His poor first half back on Wednesday was a contributing factor to early nerves around the Breslin Center, but if he can take advantage of a matchup with U-M freshman Ignas Brazdeikis and knock down a couple outside shots, MSU’s chances look a whole lot better.

When Michigan has the ball…

MSU will be wary of Michigan center Jon Teske and his shooting from outside. Teske’s made 36 percent of his 3-pointers in conference play – not too shabby for a 7-footer who can take Tillman away from the basket defensively.

Simpson is not much of an outside shooter but is an excellent distributor – just 5 points but 12 assists against Minnesota. He can drive and kick out to Matthews or Poole for outside shots and Brazdeikis has also been a solid enough outside shooter in conference play despite struggling offensively at times.

Both teams will rely heavily on their starters in this game, but Michigan may look to use Isaiah Livers as a scoring option if Brazdeikis struggles early. Livers earned his first start of the season in the game at the Breslin Center last year, and is really the only bench scoring option for Michigan. East Lansing-native freshman Brandon Johns is still learning the pace of the game – points for him against MSU would be trouble for the Spartans.