On Tuesday evening, one of the Big Ten's best rivalries in the last few years was set to tip-off again in what was scheduled to be the last matchup between Michigan and Michigan State this season. The Spartans had won the first matchup, but were forced to take care of business in East Lansing in overtime against a resilient Michigan team. This time, the Wolverines would be looking to snag a victory over their rival at home.
From the start of the game, Michigan State jumped out to a commanding lead. The Spartans not only had players like Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine hit big buckets, but the Wolverines were unable to score consistenly against a stifling defense. By the 11 minute mark of the 1st Half, Michigan State had a 18-8 lead. They largely maintained this lead in the 1st Half and went to halftime up 38-23. In the 2nd Half, Michigan's offense came to life thanks to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Aubrey Dawkins, but it wouldn't be enough as they could never close in thanks to big buckets from Matt Costello and Branden Dawson. The final score was Michigan State 80-67.
So what did we learn from Tuesday's matchup in Ann Arbor?
What We Learned
Michigan State Might Be Hitting Its Stride
This year has been an up and down one for Spartan fans. During the first part of the year, they beat all the teams they were supposed to beat - except Texas Southern - but failed to beat the quality opponents. Later on, they have largely taken care of business against teams like Northwestern and Rutgers, but have also had some duds against teams like Illinois and Nebraska and near losses to teams like Michigan at home. However, MSU has now won 3 games in a row and 5 of their last 6 including a home win against a good Ohio State team and a road win against arch-rival Michigan. What is perhaps more important is that the team's defense is looking better, Branden Dawson is playing extremely well, and Travis Trice is driving the hoop. This team probably still isn't good enough to challenge the Wisconsins of the world, but it looks good enough to grab a decent seed in the Big Ten Tournament and set itself up for March.
Michigan Didn't "Lose" This Game
A loss is never a good thing. However, there are some losses that are worse than others. Wolverine fans aren't going to take any enjoyment from the fact that their team lost to its in-state rival on Tuesday night, but it is important to realize that this wasn't a game that Michigan "lost." This was a case of one team playing extremely well and one team just not playing as well. That's the most blanket statement of all-time, but it's true here. The Spartans hit some major shots from outside the arch with defenders in their face, shot above their season average from the free throw line, and hit some really nice jumpers in traffic to win this game. Michigan made a run during the beginning of the 2nd Half, but Michigan State answered everytime Michigan got within shouting distance. Michigan's defense was certainly not good enough to snag a win here, but a big part of that was stellar play from the Spartans. Neither team really looked "bad" on Tuesday night. The Spartans just had more in the tank.
Branden Dawson Deserves All-Big Ten Consideration
With the Big Ten season gradually coming to a close, it means that many are going to start discussing the contenders for various conference awards. Well, one player that deserves consideration is Michigan State's Branden Dawson. Not only did he put up 23 points and 13 rebounds in this game, but he has scored double-digits in 5 of his last 6 games, has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in 8 of his last 9 games, and has committed just 5 fouls in his last 5 games. To add in, Dawson has a 107 offensive rating on the season and a 54.7% effective field goal percentage. His numbers have been really solid, especially lately. However, what is the biggest part of Dawson's game is his stellar defensive play. He has the ability to stay in front of opponents, use his hands to disrupt shots, and can play inside and outside. He did have a late mistake against Zak Irvin, but his play was very solid all night and he definitely deserves to be in the conversation for All-Big Ten this year.
For Michigan State, this is a valuable road win to add to their NCAA Tournament resume and a rivalry win that will boost morale among fans heading into March. The win was certainly not perfect, but it was never in doubt for the majority of the game. It was a convincing victory that shows where this team could be headed.
For Michigan, this is a rough loss to add to a recent string of struggles. The Wolverines have now dropped 5 games in a row and have locked themselves out of NCAA Tournament at-large consideration. The team will have to look to put a positive spin on this season starting on Sunday against arch-rival Ohio State at home.
In total, it was a relatively exciting game due to Michigan State's fast start, but the 2nd Half was competitive and featured a lot of scoring for both teams. However, the Spartans had too much for the Wolverines this time and got a nice resume win.