The battle for the Big Ten is finally upon us. Michigan State faces off for the second time this season against their arch rival Michigan tomorrow for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings. This match-up defines rivalry, meeting Sunday for the 173 time. Michigan leads the all time series 96-76, and holds the longest winning streak in the series at 12 wins in a row from 1921-1927. Although Michigan has won the last 2 meetings, MSU has dominated the rivalry under Izzo, winning 22 of the 35 meetings since he’s been head coach. Izzo led the Spartans to the largest victory in the series rivalry in March of 2000, winning 114-63; that was a pretty good March for the Spartans, going on to win the National Title later that season. The rivalry even expands off the court, these 2 schools battle the fertile recruiting grounds of the Midwest. Each school has landed Indiana’s Mr. Basketball the past 2 years: Gary Harris in 2012 and Zak Irvin in 2013. These two highly talented recruits were high school teammates, and remain close friends. It’s hard to believe the 2 great recruits could never boast a high school state title, proving the greatness of Indiana high school basketball in recent years. Izzo sums up the rivalry perfectly with his statement, “Do I respect John Beilein? Tremendously. Do I respect Michigan? Tremendously. Do I like them? Not one bit. I don’t like anything about Michigan and they don’t like anything about us, and that’s the way it should be.”
Harris vs. Stauskus
Gary Harris and Nik Stauskas are the Big Ten’s leading candidates for player of the year. The match-up didn’t disappoint in the previous meeting. Stauskas posted 19 points and 4 assists. After the game Izzo said of Stauskas, “He made some good shots…We can’t cheat very much and when we did, he’s knocking it home. If he’s open, he’s making a shot.” After the win Stauskas seemed to take the lead for player of the year honors. However, since that performance Stauskas has struggled, maybe due to a defensive strategy originated by coach K and copied throughout the Big Ten. Recently, smaller, quicker players have been successful in denying Stauskas the ball. The issue is, Michigan State doesn’t have this option, look for Harris to be guarding Stauskas again on Sunday.
Gary Harris is probably the only player in the nation that can lead all scorers with 27 points in a game and fall in the eyes of fans for player of the year honors. Harris didn’t only score 27 points, he’s a great defender as well and showed it with 5 rebounds and 3 steals. The match-up between great scorers will surely be a key in determining the win and determining this year’s Big Ten player of the year. Look for Harris to be better defensively and deny Stauskas the ball better this time around, I’m sure he, too, is tired of Nik’s cocky attitude that has him prancing more than LeBron these days. I expect both players to play well, but Harris to solidify himself as the pole position for Big Ten player of the year honors after Sunday’s game.
My prediction for Dawson to return Sunday against Michigan seems to be 1 game premature. After practice Friday, Izzo officially ruled Dawson out of Sunday’s showdown. Izzo went on to say, “He left here about 10 minutes after practice started. They’re taking the pins out…It (Dawson’s return) does come at a good time, because we’ll have six days to get to our next game.”
Missing Dawson will hurt Michigan State Sunday. They didn’t have him in the previous match-up either, and the Spartans were outrebounded 35-29. Losing the rebounding stat against Michigan is disturbing, considering their struggles with rebounding this season, ranking 275 overall nationally in the category. Dawson is the team’s leading rebounder and adds toughness. Missing him probably contributed to Michigan making more free-throws than Michigan State even attempted. Another issue with missing Dawson against Michigan is the awkward defensive math-up it leaves the Spartans with on Glenn Robinson III. Who will start on Robinson? Payne? Costello? Either way, neither guy is accustomed to guarding athletes like Robinson on the perimeter.
Point Guard Match-up
The key match-up in the game may come down to the most important position in basketball, point guards. In the last meeting Derrick Walton Jr. had arguably his best game of the year. He posted 19 points, 4 assists, and 6 rebounds. This comes to a surprise to Izzo and Spartan fans considering Appling’s defensive prowess. Appling had a pretty good game himself, posting a double-double 10 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Spartan fans may be worried about the match-up this time around because of Appling’s injury, but don’t forget that he was injured in the previous meeting as well. Izzo commented on this after the game, “I played guys that haven’t played in a month. Keith Appling – I can’t tell you how much that kid sucked it up.” He went on to say, “There was a real effort by Appling. I don’t say that often enough.”
It’s not just the starting point guards that will have a huge impact on the game. Both teams have solid back –ups: Travis Trice and Spike Albrecht. Last time, neither player had a stellar performance, both put in just 3 points. Look for that to change Sunday, Spike has a knack for big game performances, do I have to mention his first half in the national championship game last year, or has everyone heard that story enough by now? Trice has been hot of late, playing huge minutes while Appling has been sidelined due to injury.
Why this time will be different
Most importantly, this game will be different because MSU gets the premier center in the country this time, Adreian Payne. Payne is averaging 17 points, and 8 rebounds a game; needless to say, he’s a game changer. He should help MSU win the rebounding column this time around, and Michigan will have a tough time finding a player on their roster that can guard him.
Earlier I touched upon a match-up guarding Robinson that may be difficult for the Spartans. I don’t believe Michigan will be able to capitalize on this mis-match. Let’s face it, Robinson hasn’t exactly panned out. He was once called the best player from Indiana in his recruiting class that also contained Gary Harris and Yogi Ferrell. Sorry Glenn, that hasn’t been the case in college.
In the game at the Breslin, LeVert and Walton combined for 36 points. I don’t see this happening again. Denzel has been coming into his own with all the responsibility that has been put on his shoulders without some of the other key players. Look for Denzel to be much more competitive with his match-up against LeVert.
Prediction time: 74-68 Michigan State. I just can’t predict Izzo being swept by Michigan, it may happen, but I won’t be the one to predict it. No matter how you look at it it’s going to be a great game. I expect Harris and Stauskas, 2 premier scorers nationally, to put on a show and lead their teams in this battle for the probable Big Ten Championship.