On Sunday, Michigan traveled roughly an hour to East Lansing to face off in what has become one of the strongest and most competitive rivalries in the Big Ten. The Wolverines would be without starting point guard Derrick Walton, Jr., but would look to upset the Spartans on the road.
During the game, things started pretty sloppy, but the Wolverines took control in the 1st Half. However, after Muhammad Ali Abdur Rahkman hit the bench with 2 fouls, the Spartans came roaring back and went to half with 29-24 lead. In the 2nd Half, Michigan started coming back and for most of the period, it was a back and forth affair with both teams grabbing key baskets and exchanging the lead. Michigan State finally hit some big shots late and it looked like they had things sealed up until Spike Albrecht hit a huge 3 pointer to give the Wolverines a chance. Michigan was able to get what they needed and forced it to overtime. In overtime, it was all Michigan State. They were able to get anything they wanted inside and forced several turnovers. By the end, MSU won by a final score of 76-66.
So what did we learn?
What We Learned
Spartans Can Get The Job Done At Home
This wasn't the type of win that is going to spread confidence about beating teams like Wisconsin later in the season, but it was still a big win for a Michigan State team that has been inconsistent this season and have had their fair share of struggles against the Wolverines over the last few years. At the end of the season, this win may not look as impressive as wins against teams like Indiana and Iowa, but it's the way the Spartans were able to gut out a win that was remarkable, especially after giving up a few baskets to Michigan to allow overtime. In fact, following the game, Tom Izzo bluntly said that the Spartans "found a way to win." Wins like this don't always get a ton of attention long-term, but they add up over a season and if MSU can continue to take care of business at home, it will be big for a team that many consider on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Denzel Valentine Can Make The Difference
Coming into the game, many anticipated that Branden Dawson would be the key matchup for the Spartans. Michigan has struggled with athletic and physical players like Dawson this season and this appeared like it could be the difference on Sunday. Dawson had a solid game himself, finishing with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and only 1 foul, but Valentine was the big difference maker. Not only did he finish with 25 points, but he also finished with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. He made big plays from start to finish and he was also a key factor on the defensive end. After the game, Izzo said Valentine was "very, very good" defensively. Valentine has been relatively inconsistent this season, but when he is playing well, it means a lot for the Spartans.
John Beilein Is A Wizard
Michigan did not win on Sunday, but the team's performance was very impressive considering the circumstances they faced. Not only are they still without star guard Caris LeVert, but they were also down starting point guard Derrick Walton, Jr. and reserve big man Mark Donnal due to sillness. That's two players who have averaged 30+ minutes in games played this season and another averaging 10+ this season. Injury and sickness concerns are definitely significant, but considering that Michigan ranks #329 in experience and that LeVert and Walton are also some of their most experienced players is even bigger. At one point, Michigan had four players on the floor that were either freshmen or walk-on players. They were playing short handed and with a very young roster, but still managed to not only compete with a big rival on the road, but force overtime. John Beilein and his players remain adamant that they do not believe in "moral victories," but it's tough not to like where this Michigan roster is heading long-term despite dropping a few games they were in at the end.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman Could Be Michigan's Best Active Player
To some, this may come as a surprising statement, but considering that Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. are both out with injury, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (MAAR) could be the best player on Michigan's active roster. Not only was the lineup better with him on the floor, but his 18 points were huge and when he was forced to leave the floor in the 1st Half due to foul trouble, it was the turning point that allowed MSU to take the lead going into halftime. MAAR can attack the hoop, can find open teammates, and is a better defender than many think. He was one of the few Michigan players that were able to get out and effectively slow down the ball handler in transition. What's even more amazing about this is that MAAR played in just 5 of the team's first 8 games and averaged just under 3.2 minutes a game in Michigan's first 16 games of the season. His rise over the last month has been incredible.
This is probably not a win that is going to define the season for either Michigan or MSU, or at least their fans hope not, but it was a nice building block for the Spartans and could be a sign of things to come for a young Wolverines team. Michigan gets Iowa on Thursday and MSU gets about a week off before facing Illinois.