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Ryan Connors |NCAA.com | February 24, 2019

3 things to watch for in Michigan-Michigan State's Big Ten battle

Andy Katz reveals his bracket

No. 7 Michigan and No. 10 Michigan State face off for the first time this season in Sunday's biggest game, and it's a matchup that will have a hand in determining the Big Ten standings.

The Wolverines and Spartans are tied atop the conference standings with No. 15 Purdue at 13-3 in conference play. Sunday's game on Michigan's home court (at 3:45 ET on CBS) is the first meeting between the two in-state rivals, though a UM-MSU rematch on the final weekend of the season means this game won't be the final ruling.

Here's what we'll be looking for: 

Michigan State is now without *two* of its best players for an extended stretch. How will the Spartans look?

Michigan State lost guard Joshua Langford for the rest of the season to a foot injury the end of January. Then last week, the Spartans announced center Nick Ward would miss an undetermined amount of time with a fracture in his hand. 

This means MSU is now without two of its top offensive players, and in Ward, its defensive anchor. Michigan State has had time to get used to Langford's absence, but Ward's injury leaves a hole that might be harder to fill. Sophomore Xavier Tillman filled in admirably with 19 points and 10 rebounds against Rutgers on Wednesday in his second start of the season at center, and Kenny Goins added 12 boards. The test that awaits on Sunday will be a bit tougher, though.

Cassius Winston vs. Michigan's perimeter defense is the matchup to watch.

The Spartans run their offense through point guard Cassius Winston, and now they'll count on him even more than they already were. Lucky for the Spartans, Winston has developed into a player of the year candidate as a junior. He's the heart of everything the Spartans do on offense. Winston averages 7.4 assists per game against 2.8 turnovers, and dishes out highlight-reel passes. 

 

He averages 19 points per game and shoots 43 percent on 3-pointers despite drawing the focus of every opponent. Winston can score all by himself.

 

He'll be up against a tough challenge in Michigan's Zavier Simpson. Winston's counterpart on the Wolverines is a relentless on-ball defender who can match up with anyone outside. Simpson, Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews form a lengthy team that can pressure opposing ball handlers into making mistakes. How effective they are at containing Winston will have a huge impact on whether Michigan State can run its offense the way it wants.

Can Michigan score?

There are three elite units in this game. See if you can spot the fourth.

Here's where all four rank in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency stats:

  • Michigan State offense: sixth
  • Michigan defense: second
  • Michigan offense: 33rd
  • Michigan State defense: seventh

Michigan has shown for the most part that it doesn't need to light up the scoreboard to win. Their defense is good enough to shut down almost any opponent, and that means the Wolverines rarely have to rely on their offense to win games.

Michigan started off the season humming on offense, highlighted by a 50-percent shooting performance against Villanova and a ridiculous 57 percent mark against North Carolina. Lately though, the Wolverines have been prone to scoring droughts.

The Michigan offense that comes into Sunday's game isn't bad, but it's certainly a tick inefficient for a team with championship aspirations. When Michigan's offense is humming, you can usually point to Iggy Brazdeikis as a big reason why. The 6-foot-7 freshman can score inside, but is also dangerous on the perimeter.

Brazdeikis and fellow forward Charles Matthews are the Wolverines' go-to scorers.  Jordan Poole and sixth man Isaiah Livers are threats from the outside, while Simpson does most of his damage on acrobatic hook shots near the hoop.

But the Wolverines' don't hit the boards on offense, nor do they get to the free-throw line a whole lot. Combine that with only okay shooting from the field, and you'll get an offense that stalls from time to time.

Still, Michigan's (relative) struggles on offense doesn't have to be a death knell. It had the same problem last year and still made it all the way to the NCAA tournament final. Will it be enough this season? Sunday's game should provide us with some clues.

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