In the battle for Michigan, the Spartans came out on top.
Michigan State (23-5, 14-3) topped Michigan 77-70 Sunday, moving to the top of the Big Ten in the process. Cassius Winston (27 points, eight assists) and Kenny Goins (16 points, 11 rebounds) led the way for the Spartans, while Zavier Simpson chipped in 19 points and five rebounds for the Wolverines.
It was an impressive road outing for Michigan State, which lost Joshua Langford for the season last month. The Spartans also came into this contest without Nick Ward, leaving them without two of their top three scorers.
Nonetheless, the Spartans prevailed, while the Wolverines (24-4, 13-4) were left with some big questions to answer late in the season. Namely, Michigan State's defense put on the clamps in the final 10 minutes, shutting down driving lanes and forcing Michigan to take contested shots from distance.
Thankfully, college basketball fans won't have to wait long for the rematch. The two teams will next face off Saturday, March 9, in East Lansing. That promises to be another dynamic matchup and could decide the Big Ten regular-season title.
Cassius Winston Has Enough Sauce to Lead Injury-Ravaged Spartans to Big Ten Title
It can't be overstated how impressive Michigan State was Sunday. Facing one of the nation's best defenses on the road without Langford or Ward, they still pulled out the win against a talented rival.
"I think, under the circumstance, it's the biggest win yet," head coach Tom Izzo said after the game, per Colton Pouncy of The Athletic. "I really do."
Winston was the difference. While Michigan State was able to take Michigan out of its comfort zone on offense, Winston always seemed to have an answer for the Wolverines defense. Not surprisingly, the praise for both Winston and the Spartans in general was effusive:
Tim Brando @TimBrando
Prototype W for @MSU_Basketball winning the last 5 minutes by clamping down defensively. Cassius Winston truly the difference. Xavier Simpson every bit as much the engine for @umichbball will lead his Wolverines into East Lansing in 13 days. Gotta give Izzo’s guys a ton of credit
Izzo was more succinct.
"Cassius Winston was unbelievable," he said, per Pouncy.
Michigan State fans agreed:
Michigan State's finishing moves were stout defense and Winston's 19 second-half points. It was the sort of performance that bodes well for Michigan State's prospects down the stretch as the team seeks regular-season and conference titles, along with a long run in March.
More than a few teams have rode a hot guard through March Madness. If the Spartans can get Ward back for the NCAA tournament, they'll be a scary opponent.
They proved that much Sunday.
Michigan's Lack of an Offensive Superstar Will Be Ultimate Demise
While Winston carried Michigan State to a victory, the Wolverines didn't see an offensive hero emerge, sans two tough threes from Poole in the final minute. And nothing threatens Michigan's upside more.
From the 10-minute mark of the second half to the one-minute mark, Michigan scored just seven points, missing 10 jump shots. Michigan State did a brilliant job of taking away Michigan's drives to the basket, daring somebody to beat it from the perimeter.
Michigan doesn't have an offensive superstar to lead it past those rough patches. The team doesn't have a single player averaging 15 or more points per game, with Ignas Brazdeikis (14.4 PPG), Poole (13.1 PPG) and Charles Matthews (13.1 PPG) leading the way.
Yes, Poole can hit tough shots in the clutch. But when Michigan needed someone to lead the team out of the desert in the second half, Poole didn't have the answer. Neither did any of his teammates.
Against most teams, it doesn't matter. Michigan's stifling defense and size advantage overwhelms most opponents, and the Wolverines can spread the wealth on offense to get by. But against stiffer competition, it will be an issue.
It could come back to bite them in March. Try to remember the last NCAA champion without a dynamic top option on offense. It's hard to do. That's the uphill battle the Wolverines are facing this season, and it's why it's hard to consider them a true title threat.
Michigan hosts Nebraska on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, while Michigan State faces Indiana on the road next Saturday at 12 p.m. ET on Fox.