Instate rivals clash in key Big Ten battle

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Updated: 2/23/2014 10:16 am

Ann Arbor, MI ( - Intrastate rivals will square off at the Crisler Center on Sunday afternoon with first place in the Big Ten Conference on the line, as the 20th-ranked Michigan Wolverines play host to the 13th- ranked Michigan State Spartans.

Michigan State has been outstanding all season long at 22-5 and hold a half- game lead over Michigan for first place in the league at 11-3, but the team has battled through injuries in recent weeks and have alternated wins with losses in each of its last nine games. The Spartans most recently landed on the winning side of things with a 94-79 triumph at Purdue on Thursday to improve to 7-1 on the road.

After winning each of its first eight Big Ten matchups, Michigan has fallen back in recent weeks with losses in three of its last five games, which includes a disappointing home loss to nationally-ranked Wisconsin last Sunday, 75-62. The Wolverines are 18-7 this season, 10-2 at home and 4-4 against top-25 teams.

In the first meeting this season, the Wolverines got the best of the Spartans in East Lansing on Jan. 25, 80-75. Michigan has now won three straight over Michigan State to improve its standing in the all-time series to 96-76.

The Spartans overcame a tough road atmosphere in their most recent game by opening up an 11-point halftime lead over Purdue and never allowing the Boilermakers to get closer than nine the rest of the way. It was a red-hot shooting performance for the Spartans, who made good on 57.7 percent of their field goal tries, including 17-of-32 from beyond the arc. Gary Harris tied a career-high with six 3-pointers en route to 25 points, Adreian Payne had 23 points and was also hot from long range (4-of-8), while Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice scored 16 and 14 points, respectively, and Keith Appling came off the bench to hand out nine assists.

Michigan State has been one of the nation's most well-rounded teams this season, as it shoots 47 percent from the field for 77.6 ppg, while allowing 65.3 ppg on just 39.1 percent shooting. The team hasn't been at full strength in recent weeks, however, as Branden Dawson (10.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg) has been missing in action with a hand injury, and Appling (13.9 ppg, 4.9 apg) and Payne (16.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg) have also missed several games of late. Harris (17.8 ppg) has taken on even more scoring responsibilities recently, as he's poured in more than his average in six of the last 10 games. Valentine has been one of the few players to suit up for all 27 games and has contributed across the board with 8.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg and 1.1 spg.

Not only did Michigan suffer a rare home loss in their latest contest, but it barely even competed in the 13-point setback, as it never once held the lead and shot just 40 percent from the field. The squad only committed nine turnovers but put very little pressure on Wisconsin, which turned the ball over just twice. Caris LeVert was outstanding despite the setback, shooting 5- of-6 from 3-point range on his way to 25 points while hauling in a team-high six rebounds as well. Nik Stauskas added 11 points and Glenn Robinson III pitched in 10 points.

The lackluster all-around performance for the Wolverines was not indicative of their season success, as they shoot just under 48 percent from the field for 75.0 ppg while also playing stout defense, yielding 64.8 ppg on 43.6 percent shooting. Arguably their biggest strength comes from beyond the arc, where they knock down 8.4 3-pointers per game at a 39.3 percent clip, and they also live in the green in terms of their rebounding (+1.8) and turnover (+1.2) margins. Stauskas (16.7 ppg) has been excellent from long range at 55-of-125 (.440) and he also drains 81.9 percent of his free-throw tries. LeVert (13.0 ppg, Robinson (12.8 ppg) and Derrick Walton Jr. (8.4 ppg) are also regular contributors.

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