An in-state rivalry looks to steal the show on Selection Sunday as Michigan State and Michigan will clash in the Big Ten tournament final with critical NCAA tournament seeding on the line.
For the third-ranked Spartans (25-8), the key to success is simple—stay healthy with all critical players actually on the floor together. The top-seeded Wolverines (25-7) must continue their sharpshooting ways from long distance to fend off Tom Izzo's team for a third time this season.
Izzo is one particularly excited about the matchup:
On the cusp of the Big Ten final, here is a last-second look at what to watch for and what to expect at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
How They Got There
The Spartans were fortunate enough to sit out the first round of the action in Indianapolis, and once they entered the fray, things were not exactly difficult as 16 points from Branden Dawson propelled them past Northwestern, 67-51.
The battle with No. 2 Wisconsin in the semifinals proved a bit more difficult, but the Spartans won comfortably 83-75 after jumping out to a 17-point halftime lead and seeing six players score in double figures.
It was a much more difficult path for the Wolverines, who hardly escaped upset-minded No. 9 Illinois, 64-63. A layup with 11 seconds to go by Jordan Morgan sealed the deal.
While thrilling, the Wolverines looked far from making the final. They were forced to survive an epic comeback bid from Ohio State, but managed to emerge victorious with a 72-69 finish thanks to 18 points from.
What's at Stake
Yes, the Big Ten crown is on the line. Great, but what really matters is the NCAA tournament ramifications.
Michigan figures to have a slight grip on a No. 1 seed, but a loss to Michigan State throws a wrench in those plans. Even with two wins over the Spartans already and 10 wins against the RPI top 50, John Beilein's team needs a win on Sunday to be happy later that evening when the bracket comes out.
Believe it or not, the ramifications are even bigger for the Spartans, a team that just might be able to grab a No. 1 seed with a win. ESPN's Eamonn Brennan has the details:
It's often mentioned that the NCAA selection committee evaluates how a team performs at full strength -- if that team is entering the NCAA Tournament at full strength.
If that's true, then Michigan State should be a No. 1 seed if it wins the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan State is 13-3 with all of its key players (defined as top five players in minutes per game among players who have played at least half of their team's games): Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne.
As Brennan goes on to point out, the Spartans are 20-3 with Dawson in the lineup and 6-2 against the top 50. Dawson himself was finally healthy for the team's second matchup with Wisconsin this year, the aforementioned tournament victory and reflected on his first missed opportunity, according to Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated:
“It was sad,” Dawson said. “Just to see those guys play hard and fight, and unfortunately they came up short. I felt like I could have helped out a lot on defense and rebounding and just bringing energy. I’m definitely ready.”
The numbers say the Spartans are a No. 1 when healthy. If they can prove that against the Wolverines, anything is possible when the bracket is formed.
Is there any stopping?
The sophomore poured in point totals of 25 and 19 this year against the Spartans and shot a total 8-of-11 mark from downtown to help sink Michigan State both times.
Sophomore Caris LeVert also shot lights out against the Spartans, notching point totals of 17 and 23 while going a combined 6-of-10 shooting from behind the arc.
One problem—Dawson missed both of those games.
The Spartans are nearly unstoppable when Dawson is on the floor. His 10.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and one block per game are great averages and something that will win the battle down low for Michigan State.
Simply put, the Wolverines do not have anyone that can bang under the rim with Dawson, let alone slow him down on a fast break. For a team that lives and dies by its long-range habits, the Wolverines are unprepared for the element Dawson adds to the Spartans.
Michigan needed an 11-of-19 line from behind the arc on Jan. 25 to overcome Michigan State by five. Unless the Wolverines can do even better, Dawson and the Spartans will control the pace en route to the title.
Prediction: Michigan State 82, Michigan 75