GAME NOTES: Both the ninth-ranked Michigan State Spartans and the fourth- ranked Michigan Wolverines attempt to halt recent slides in the Big Ten Conference standings on Sunday afternoon, as the pair square off in a marquee matchup at Crisler Center.
Michigan State was sitting alone in first place a few weeks ago, but following losses to Indiana at home on Feb. 19 (72-68), and at Ohio State on Feb. 24 (68-60), the team has dipped to 11-4 in conference, tying it with Wisconsin for second place, a game and a half back of Indiana with just three games to play. Overall, the Spartans have had a spectacular season at 22-6, and they have performed fairly well on the road (6-4).
Michigan has one of the best homecourt advantages in the country, having won all 16 of its games at Crisler Center this season and 31 of 32 over the past two campaigns, but its recent road woes have all but eliminated it from contention in the Big Ten. The Wolverines recently suffered an inexcusable loss at last-place Penn State on Wednesday night, 84-78, to fall to 23-5 overall and 10-5 in league play.
Michigan State won the first meeting between these fierce rivals this season, claiming an easy 75-52 decision in East Lansing for its second consecutive win over the Wolverines. Michigan still leads the all-time series however, 94-76.
The Spartans actually held a nine-point lead over Ohio State early in the second half of their recent clash, but the Buckeyes managed to rip off a 24-5 run to take a double-digit advantage, and Michigan State could never recover. The team shot a respectable 45.7 percent from the field, but it was just 2- of-11 from 3-point range and lost the turnover battle, 14-9. Gary Harris tallied 14 points and five assists in the setback, Adreian Payne logged a double-double with 12 points and 15 rebounds, while Derrick Nix also scored 12 points.
MSU is usually much more impressive at both ends of the floor, as it ranks sixth in the Big Ten in scoring (69.6 ppg) and third in scoring defense (59.9 ppg), outshooting its opponents, 46.8 percent to 39.2 percent. The team's top scoring options reside in the backcourt, as Keith Appling (13.4 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Harris (13.2 ppg) are in the midst of promising season, but the squad has risen to elite status thanks mostly to its ability to out-man the opposition in the paint. Payne records 9.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 1.3 rpg all while shooting greater than 58 percent from the field, while Branden Dawson (10.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg, .555 FG percentage) and Nix (9.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, .522 FG percentage) round out perhaps the most physically imposing frontcourt trio in the Big Ten.
The Maize and Blue appeared to have their latest game well in hand, as they brought their lead to as many as 15 midway through the second half, but they suffered a puzzling collapse down the stretch, with the Nittany Lions ending the game on a 33-12 run to capture the upset. The Wolverines shot an impressive 51.7 percent from the field, but they were plagued by 15 turnovers and lackluster free-throw shooting after halftime (6-of-12). Tim Hardaway, Jr. led the way with 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting, while Trey Burke had 18 points and six assists, but also six turnovers. Nik Stauskas (12 points, eight rebounds) and Jordan Morgan (11 points) rounded out the double-digit scorers.
On the season, Michigan has the Big Ten's second-best offense, shooting a lofty 49.5 percent from the field for 76.0 ppg. Pacing the offensive efforts is All-America candidate Trey Burke, who not only averages the second-most points in the conference (18.8 ppg) on nearly 50 percent shooting, but he has also handed out 193 assists (6.9 pg) compared to only 54 turnovers. Hardaway, Jr. is a strong second option with 15.2 ppg, while Stauskas pours in 11.8 ppg while netting nearly 46 percent of his 3-point attempts. In fact, all three of UM's top scorers are deadly from long range, combining for 173 3-point buckets. Glenn Robinson III brings 11.1 ppg and 5.5 rpg to the table for the Wolverines, who also step it up at the defensive end by allowing just 62.1 ppg.
Neither team is performing as well as they are capable of as the season comes to a close, and both will be eager to get back on the winning track in the last week before the daunting road in the Big Ten Tournament begins. Michigan State has a clear advantage on the inside, which it showed in the teams' latest bout, but Michigan has been unstoppable at home, and its outside shooting will lift it to victory.