No. 3 Michigan State, No. 21 Michigan has overcome injuries to set up showdown
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are in the NBA, and Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Mitch McGary are all dealing with injuries.
These are the top two teams in the Big Ten?
It's almost hard to believe, but No. 3 Michigan State and No. 21 Michigan are the only teams left in the Big Ten without a conference loss, and everyone else in the league has at least two. That means Saturday night's showdown between the in-state rivals at the Breslin Center in East Lansing could have major implications on the championship race.
"It's a big game, a rivalry game," Michigan State guard Gary Harris said. "The Bres will be rocking. They'll be ready to play, so it's definitely going to be a battle."
Breslin was certainly loud last year, when Michigan State and Michigan played each other as top 10 teams for the first time. The Spartans won that one in a 75-52 rout.
Saturday's game marks another first — Michigan State (18-1, 7-0) and Michigan (14-4, 6-0) have never met with both teams at 6-0 or better in Big Ten play.
It's a rivalry that's experienced a renaissance in recent years. Michigan and Michigan State were both part of a three-way tie for the Big Ten title in 2012. After the embarrassing loss in East Lansing last year, the Wolverines rebounded and went all the way to the Final Four. Michigan has won four of the last six in this series after losing 18 of the previous 21.
"I think the main thing is we're not scared," Michigan's Nik Stauskas said. "We're just going to come in and play the way Michigan basketball plays and just be as aggressive as we can."
The Wolverines lost Burke and Hardaway after last season's run, and any hope of similar success in 2014 seemed gone when McGary needed surgery for a back injury. McGary is out indefinitely, but Michigan has won eight in a row despite the star big man's absence. Jordan Morgan has filled in and is helping the offense with his ability to cut to the basket.
"When he's a threat, people kind of sag in from the side," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Stauskas is doing more as a passer than maybe Hardaway did."
The Spartans, meanwhile, have won 11 in a row despite significant injury problems of their own. Payne has missed four straight games with a foot injury, and Izzo has said he's unlikely to play Saturday. Michigan State also must replace Dawson, who broke his hand this week.
Dawson said he was reviewing film of a game and became angry with his play, slamming his hand against a table.
Nobody doubts the intensity of this rivalry. Michigan coach John Beilein was asked about McGary's status and said he has not officially started rehab.
"My biggest concern would be on the bench," Beilein said. "His national inclination is to jump up and down, hug his teammates, do these things. There's still a period here where you've just got to be extremely dormant."
Beilein said it might be best if McGary watches Saturday's game on TV instead of making the trip.
With Dawson and possibly Payne out Saturday, Harris and fellow guard Keith Appling will be on the spot. The game may come down to how effective Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III can be for Michigan against Michigan State's defense on the perimeter.
The most likely candidate to start in Dawson's place is forward Kenny Kaminski. A redshirt freshman, Kaminski has appeared in 12 games this season and made 17 of 31 attempts from 3-point range.
Amid all the adversity they've faced, the Spartans still have only one loss — at home against North Carolina. Beilein can certainly appreciate Michigan State's resiliency.
"I think usually you can respond," Beilein said. "They're used to playing without Payne right now. As good as he is, as great a player, they're used to it."
Both Michigan and Michigan State have proven they can play well while short-handed — and each team should have more than enough adrenaline to put forth an inspired performance this weekend.
"Hopefully (we're) at 100 percent, 212 degrees, every game, no matter who the opponent is," Beilein said. "Is it easier to get up for this game? Absolutely."