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First place at stake for Michigan, Michigan State
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - The clock ran out on Michigan’s big win at Michigan State last month, and as Wolverines guard Nik Stauskas jogged gleefully off the court, he blew a big kiss toward the crowd at the Breslin Center.
A bit much? Perhaps, but in this rivalry it’s easy to get lost in the moment.
“We were just excited to get a win there,” Stauskas said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, but it’s all right.”
There are always bragging rights on the line when these teams meet, but when No. 20 Michigan hosts No. 13 Michigan State on Sunday, a lot more will be at stake. The Wolverines trail the Spartans by a half-game atop the Big Ten standings, so the race for the conference title could swing significantly this weekend.
This looks even more like a two-team race after Saturday, when No. 16 Wisconsin’s 79-74 win over No. 15 Iowa left Michigan (18-7, 10-3) and Michigan State (22-5, 11-3) as the only Big Ten teams with fewer than five conference losses.
The Spartans still have to face Iowa and Ohio State later this season, so there may be a bit more pressure on them to stay in first place by winning in Ann Arbor. Michigan State tuned up by making 17 3-pointers Thursday night in a 94-79 win at Purdue.
“I guess destiny is kind of in our own hands - and we’re playing for a championship, still, in our last two weeks,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “That’s my goal every year: In the last two weeks, do we still have a mathematical chance to win the league? We’re there.”
Michigan State has more than just a chance, if its last performance was any indication. Gary Harris scored 25 points for the Spartans against Purdue. Adreian Payne - who missed the first game against Michigan with an injury - scored 23.
“We’re going to have to really play a great basketball game on Sunday,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “They’re good. They’ve got a great program, they’ve got so many good things going their way, but we’ll still show up and do our best.”
If Beilein was trying to shift the pressure to Michigan State, the Spartans aren’t likely to fall for that. Both these teams have dealt with potentially devastating injuries this season, and for Michigan State, that’s been an ongoing source of uncertainty.
Payne (sprained foot) and Branden Dawson (broken hand) missed the first meeting with Michigan. Payne is back and playing well, but Dawson still hasn’t played since Jan. 21. Keith Appling played against Michigan the first time, but he’s been bothered for a while by a wrist problem. Appling is 4 for 23 from 3-point range over his last eight games.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, have been without big man Mitch McGary since mid-December because of a back injury.
There’s an interesting rest vs. rust subplot to this game, because Michigan hasn’t played since losing at home to Wisconsin last weekend. The Wolverines have not lost consecutive home games since January 2011.
“Not losing at home, that’s a big thing,” Michigan guard Caris LeVert said. “We’re going to come in ready to play this weekend.”
LeVert has emerged as an impressive offensive option for Michigan, which is important since opposing teams have done a better job slowing Stauskas lately. Freshman point guard Derrick Walton has had his moments too, and Glenn Robinson III is always a threat.
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