The Michigan Wolverines clinched the Big Ten regular-season title by defeating Michigan State on Thursday. Now the Spartans may need to turn the tables against their archrival on Sunday to solidify an NCAA Tournament berth.
Michigan State (14-11, 8-11 Big Ten) finds itself on the tournament bubble heading into its second game in four days against the Wolverines.
No. 2 Michigan (19-2, 14-2) cruised to a 69-50 victory in its home finale. The rematch will be played in East Lansing, the regular-season finale for both teams prior to the Big Ten tournament.
"They played very good, we did not play very good, and we've got some work to do," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "I'm looking forward to Sunday."
For the first time since Izzo became the head coach in 1995, the Spartans are assured of a losing record in conference play. They appear to have enough quality wins to remain in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, and a victory over the second-ranked Wolverines certainly would enhance their resume.
That might seem like an insurmountable task considering the way Michigan manhandled them on Thursday. The Spartans shot 36.4 percent from the field and were shut out at the 3-point arc, missing all nine attempts.
Michigan State, which trailed by as much as 28 points, also got outrebounded 34-28.
"I thought we were really prepared," Izzo said. "I've got to admit we didn't do some of the things we said we were going to do on some ball screens and that.
"That was individual players maybe just not getting enough reps at it. So we'll try to fix those things and do a little better job. ... We think we know why things went awry, and we'll keep that between me and my team and we'll go from there."
The Spartans' top player, forward Aaron Henry, got into some early foul trouble. He finished with a team-high 14 points -- the only Michigan State player in double figures -- but also committed four turnovers.
"I'm very disappointed in the way we played," Izzo said. "I thought our guard play was very poor early."
Michigan began the season rated 25th in the nation, dropped out of the rankings for two weeks, then began a steady climb. After capturing the regular-season championship in what many consider the nation's best conference this season, the Wolverines have national championship aspirations.
Securing a Big Ten title against the Spartans made it sweeter for head coach Juwan Howard.
"All the hard work was well worth it," Howard said. "That's just one. We have another goal we're trying to accomplish and achieve as a team. I agree with Coach Monty Williams, who coaches the Phoenix Suns. He said, 'Everything you want is on the other side of hard.' And that's exactly what we're trying to accomplish, something special."
Michigan bounced back quickly from a 23-point home loss to No. 4 Illinois on Tuesday. Franz Wagner and Hunter Dickinson led the way against the Spartans, combining for 33 points and 16 rebounds.
Howard scoffs at the notion that his team has nothing to play for on Sunday.
"Excuse me! I almost lost myself, I almost got out of character," he said. "Sunday does matter. I know on Sunday, Michigan State will be prepared to compete, so we have to be ready to go out there and compete from start to finish. The season is not over."
--Field Level Media