Not long ago, Michigan and Michigan State appeared to be the only teams in a duel for the Big Ten title.
Technically, the Michigan schools are still locked in the conference title race, but Iowa has been able to close the gap as neither the Wolverines nor the Spartans have been able to win back-to-back games in several weeks.
The Spartans, despite an incomplete roster for most of the season, continue to surprise, but Thursday’s result may have been the most shocking. Michigan State hit 17 3-pointers on 32 attempts in a game in which Tom Izzo’s team attempted only 2-point shots in the first half against Purdue.
John Beilein’s team has had its own share of surprises, too. Nik Stauskas became the go-to player as Big Ten play began, but now that mantle belongs elsewhere.
Just like it was the first time around, the Big Ten lead will be up for grabs when Michigan State faces Michigan.
What’s on the line for Michigan State
Hard to believe, but Michigan State hasn’t won back-to-back games in a month. The schedule has become more difficult in the Big Ten, plus the Spartans played a non-conference game against Georgetown in New York. The Spartans have been limited by injuries all season, so the rotation hasn’t been consistent, either. Still, Michigan State is one game ahead in the win column in the Big Ten standings.
What’s on the line for Michigan
The Wolverines’ drought of consecutive wins isn’t as long as Michigan State’s, but it’s significant. Michigan hasn’t won two in a row since Jan. 30. Michigan can take the Big Ten lead with a win.
Michigan State at Michigan
Sunday, noon Eastern, CBS
About Michigan State
Record: 22-5, 11-3 Big Ten
Record: 18-7, 10-3 Big Ten
Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan State 67-62
Braden Gall: Michigan 71-70
Mitch Light: Michigan 74-69
You’ll tune in to watch: A replay of the first meeting ... but better
The first meeting on Jan. 25 was one of the top games of the season. The Wolverines and Spartans went back and forth in East Lansing before Michigan pulled away for a 75-70 win. The finish was remarkable given Michigan State’s limitations — Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson were out, Keith Appling’s wrist limited him to 3 of 11 from the field. This time around, Dawson is still out, and Appling is ailing.
Pivotal player: Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Payne missed the first meeting between the two, but now that he’s healthy, he’s continued to be a matchup problem inside and outside. He hit key 3-pointers against Wisconsin despite the loss and then hit 4 of 8 from beyond the arc in the 3-point fest against Purdue. And remember, this is a 6-10 forward who is a problem in the paint. How Michigan holds him in check will be a key to the game.
Biggest question: Who will take the lead for Michigan?
Nik Stauskas was the top of his game during the first meeting, but opponents have figured out how to defend him in recent weeks. Meanwhile, guard Caris LeVert has emerged as the go-to scorer. His 16.8 points per game leads Michigan in the month of February. Freshmen Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin also have been leading contributors in the last five games.