On Sunday, it seemed like one question kept pounding through everyone's heads during the second battle this year between the No. 20 Michigan Wolverines and the No. 13 Michigan State Spartans: Just which team has more talent?
While many feel that Spartans' head coach Tom Izzo has one of the best squads he's ever had playing for him this season, talent didn't play as the top factor in Sunday's match up. Instead, it was toughness. And once again, the Wolverines (19-7, 11-3 Big Ten) were able to outmatch Michigan State (22-6, 11-4) on the court in determination, leading to an easy second-half burst of energy that helped to thrust Michigan to another victory over MSU by a score of 79-70.
This time, the win came at home in the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, having already beaten Michigan State in East Lansing earlier this season, which gave the Wolverines a much-needed win and also secured them in the top spot within the Big Ten Conference. This marks the second time in the last 15 seasons that Michigan has swept both regular season meetings against Michigan State. U-M head coach John Beilein also did it in the 2010-11 season.
Throughout the first half, it was Izzo's game, with the Spartans dominating on almost all levels, including some outstanding plays by spotlight senior Adreian Payne. Sophomore superstar Gary Harris added 21 points in the effort, while Denzel Valentine came alive to give his team an edge on the court.
Still, the number of turnovers committed by the Spartans by halftime was alarming, with Michigan scoring 11 points off 13 Michigan State turnovers, forcing a takeaway on 21 percent of the Spartans' possessions. For the Wolverines on offense, they committed their fewest turnovers in a single game and recorded their lowest turnover percentage of the season, helping them to outlast the Spartans after the second half.
In that second half, it was all Wolverines' Nik Stauskas, who came out of the gate and scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half.
"I just came out with the mindset in the second half that I wasn't going to be stopped," Stauskas said. "Once I made a couple shots, it kept going from there."
It was a tale of two games according to Izzo, who could see that his player's toughness was being outdone by the time the buzzer ran out.
"The first game, I was very proud of our effort. This game, we looked tired," Izzo said. "I'm not very proud of our effort."
Michigan State's Keith Appling, who'd missed a number of games due to a wrist injury, played in the match up after convincing Izzo that he was good to go, but only managed to score six points and was repeatedly pulled by the coach when needed, including after hurting his wrist in a fall once more.
"Yeah, I fell on the wrist again, but I couldn't come out of the game," Appling said. "It's very frustrating right now, because there are things I just can't do, but I can't let that be an excuse. I'm the quarterback of this team, like coach always says, and I have to be out there leading."
Branden Dawson, who missed the game and has been out for nearly a month with a broken hand, was sorely missed by Izzo, who, after the game, began to wonder aloud how much of an impact it has been on his team to have not played at full-strength since the start of the season last year.
"It's going to be hard getting guys back," Izzo said. "You think it's a plus, especially when they shoot well or do some things well. You still have to fit in with everyone. We did not have very much in sync (Sunday). It's hurting us way more defensively."
You can follow MSU writer, Michael Ferro, at twitter.com/MichaelFerro.