GAME NOTES: The Big Ten Conference Tournament title is up for grabs this afternoon, as the 22nd-ranked Michigan State Spartans collide with the eighth- ranked Michigan Wolverines at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
For top-seeded Michigan, this is the program's first appearance in the championship round of the event, now in its 17th year, since 1998 when it topped Purdue by a 76-67 score. However, due to NCAA sanctions, it is as if that trophy was never earned by the Wolverines, which means they are breaking new ground this afternoon.
Michigan's run to the title game this time around began with a narrow 64-63 victory against ninth-seeded Illinois in the quarterfinals, and continued with a 75-69 decision against Ohio State, the fifth seed, on Saturday. One of four teams from the Big Ten ranked in the Top-25 this week, the Wolverines are currently enjoying a seven-game win streak.
As for the Spartans, a squad that closed the regular season with a loss at Ohio State and dropped three of the final four, they won this event just two years ago with a 68-64 triumph over the Buckeyes. As a result, MSU is second only to OSU in total Big Ten Tournament championships with three.
Like Michigan, the Spartans also earned a bye through the opening round of the tournament on Thursday and jumped into action a day later with a 67-51 blowout of Northwestern before outlasting second-seeded and 12th-ranked Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon, 83-75.
The Wolverines swept the regular-season series with Michigan State, posting an 80-75 win on the road in late January and then capturing a 79-70 victory at home a month later. As a result, the all-time series now stands at 97-76 in favor of Michigan. The Wolverines have claimed wins in six of the last eight encounters with MSU.
Michigan State shot am impressive 65.4 percent from the floor in the first half against Wisconsin yesterday, opening the meeting with a 7-0 run and then owning a commanding 43-26 advantage at the break. The meeting tightened up a bit after intermission, but still MSU never buckled as all five starters scored in double figures. Adreian Payne may have been limited to just 17 minutes due to foul trouble, but still he paced the group with 18 points, followed by Branden Dawson with 14 and seven rebounds. Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine pitched in with 12 points apiece, Travis Trice 11 and four assists off the bench, and Keith Appling 10 points and six dishes.
A starter in all but one of the 30 games in which he has appeared this season, Harris leads the offense for the Spartans with 17.2 ppg, having made good on a team-best 72 3-pointers. Payne, who for the most part has avoided serious foul trouble outside of yesterday, puts up 15.7 ppg and brings down 7.3 rpg, while Appling (12.5 ppg) and Denzel Valentine (8.5 ppg) have combined to distribute 270 assists, close to half the unit's entire total through 33 games.
The Wolverines enjoyed a 16-point lead in the first half against Ohio State on Saturday, shooting not only 64.0 percent from the field but also 8-of-13 behind the 3-point line through the first 20 minutes of action, but that all changed in the second half.
Michigan made a grand total of only nine field goals after intermission and was a disappointing 9-of-16 at the free-throw line, allowing the Buckeyes to battle back and take a three-point lead in the final minutes. Thankfully, Michigan still had enough left in the tank to finish on top, just barely, as Nik Stauskas posted 18 points on 4-of-8 shooting beyond the arc, followed by Caris LeVert with 17 points and eight rebounds. Glenn Robinson Jr. pitched in with 11 points and three steals as the team weathered a 10-of-19 performance at the charity stripe.
Named the top player in the Big Ten this season, Stauskas has been a terror at the offensive end of the floor with his 17.5 ppg, stemming from an impressive 44.5 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line. Not only is Stauskas more than willing to take the tough shot when the Wolverines need it, he is perfectly fine with getting the ball to his teammates as well, evidenced by his team- best 103 assists this season. LeVert and Robinson Jr., both of whom have started every game, check in with 13.5 and 13.2 ppg, respectively.
Both teams are pretty much locks to be included in the NCAA Tournament regardless of the outcome today, but given the manner in which Michigan State dictated the pace of the meeting with a defensive-minded Wisconsin squad on Saturday, it only makes sense to give the edge to the Spartans. It also doesn't hurt that MSU is carrying a chip on its shoulder from losing a pair to Michigan during the regular season.
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