High stakes present once again in part three of the rivalry game

Luke Sloan, Assistant Sports Editor

It’s hard to top having a Big Ten regular-season title on the line, but having a conference tournament championship at stake is a pretty close second. This is exactly what’s in store for the third act of the brilliant symphony known as Michigan-Michigan State. That’s right, third act is correct.

Some may have predicted these two teams would meet for a third time this season in the Windy City, and they were right, as the stars aligned correctly to set up what’s expected to be another thrilling rivalry matchup.

The last time these two teams hit the hardwood many expected an entertaining showcase, and the in-state rivals delivered in front of a packed house at the Breslin Center. Michigan State earned its second victory over the Wolverines, putting together another stellar second half to win 75-63 and claim a share of the Big Ten crown.

After two outstanding matchups, the sports fans in the state of Michigan can enjoy a third, this one at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. The prize this time: a Big Ten tournament title on one of the biggest stages in basketball.

How these teams made it here

Michigan State opened the tournament as the No. 1-seeded team, taking down the Ohio State Buckeyes 77-70 on Friday behind a surprise effort from Foster Loyer. The team then neutralized star big man Ethan Happ, riding a hot start to a 67-55 victory over Wisconsin in the semifinals.

The No. 3-seeded Wolverines drew Iowa in their first game, dispatching the Hawkeyes 74-53 thanks to 15 points for Iggy Brazdeikis and a double-double for Zavier Simpson. The Minnesota Golden Gophers were the opponent in the semifinals, fresh off an upset of Purdue. This would prove to be no challenge for Michigan though, as the re-energized squad won 76-49.

Cassius Winston has led the Spartans so far in the tournament, averaging 19.5 points per game. Another lethal weapon for Michigan State has been 3-point shooting, as the team has knocked down 42 percent of its threes the past two games. Brazdeikis has averaged 14 points per game in Chicago, but the Wolverines were powered by 21 points from Isaiah Livers against the Gophers.

Wolverines hitting their stride

Michigan has been impressive so far in the Big Ten tournament, owning a 24-point average margin of victory against two quality opponents. They’ve been fueled by a revitalized offense and a return to their normal rotation.

The return of Charles Matthews, who made his first appearance against Iowa, has breathed new life into the Wolverines. Matthews has shown no signs of his ankle injury, playing extended minutes in each of the past two games. His return has allowed Livers to shift back into his role off the bench, where he is more effective.

Point guard Zavier Simpson is a player known primarily for his elite defense, but he’s led the charge on offense throughout the tourney. The junior has recorded 20 assists in these two games while proving to be constantly in control of the offense.

Look for Simpson to play a big role in Sunday’s championship game on both ends of the floor, playing defense on the Big Ten Player of the Year Winston and attempting to wear him down on offense. After being outdueled by Winston during the regular season, Simpson will be hungry for another shot at the matchup.

The play of Brazdeikis is another key for Michigan, as he will look to put up a consistent effort against MSU after leading his team with 20 points but fouling out in the season finale. The freshman and his team have played with increased confidence these past couple days.

Spartans persevering through fatigue

As the Wolverines play with newfound energy, the Spartans have been forced to deal with a number of lingering injuries and fatigue, but that hasn’t stopped them from winning. The biggest example is Winston, who has led his team in scoring during the tournament despite a left toe injury and tendinitis in his right knee.

Kyle Ahrens is the other Spartan dealing with injury, as he’s been hindered the past month due to a back injury. He played sparingly against Wisconsin, only compiling eight minutes in a very limited role. Other players like Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins aren’t necessarily dealing with injuries, but rather fatigue due to high usage since the Spartans’ rotation was shortened due to injury.

The Spartans will look to strive on effective two-man offense from Winston and Tillman once again after using that strategy to succeed in the first two rivalry games. This offense hasn’t been as prominent in the tourney due to foul trouble for Tillman against Ohio State, and lingering injury for Winston.

The most important defensive player of this game will be Goins in his matchup with Brazdeikis. This matchup went the way of Goins in the first game in Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines’ star freshman got the best of him in East Lansing. Prominent offense from Brazdeikis goes a long way toward Michigan victories, so this battle will be key if MSU wants to grab the tournament title.

This matchup is important, but all eyes will be on the two point guards for a third game in a row. Winston must battle through fatigue and physicality once again going up against Simpson, which he has done very effectively in both rivalry games.

Michigan and Michigan State will renew the rivalry for the third time in the last 21 days Sunday afternoon in the finals of the Big Ten tournament. You can listen to the contest live on Impact 88.9 FM in the Lansing area.