AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING (AP) — Michigan State and Michigan will meet Sunday, renewing their rivalry, with plenty at stake.
Both teams appear to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble midway through the Big Ten season.
The Spartans (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) have lost a season-high three straight, and four of five games, to put their Big Ten-record streak of playing in 19 straight NCAA tournaments in jeopardy.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” senior guard Eron Harris acknowledged. “I know we have a chance, but we need to go on a win streak. That’s our sense of urgency. We need every single win we can get whether it’s a rivalry game or not.”
The Wolverines (14-7, 4-4) have won two in a row and three of four, moving into a fifth-place tie with Michigan State and Indiana, to improve their chances of being in the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in nine years.
Michigan will make its first trip to the Breslin Center in two years, hoping to end a four-game losing streak in the series in a challenging environment.
“That atmosphere and the hostility of that crowd is just a different monster,” senior guard Derrick Walton said. “There’s nothing like walking into the gym and just knowing you’re hated. You’ve got to embrace it and love it.”
Tom Izzo, coming off his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, went into the season with more turnover than he’s had in 15 years. He is without seven players from last season’s 29-win team, lost two more when post players Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter needed knee surgeries and didn’t have star freshman Miles Bridges in the lineup for seven games because of a sprained left ankle. Bridges has been back for six games, including the last one in which he set a school scoring record for a freshman with 33 points in a loss to Purdue.
Despite recent results, Izzo insisted he is encouraged by his team’s progress.
“I’m really liking what we’re doing right now,” Izzo said. “We are getting better.”
The Wolverines clearly look like they’re improving, but they have struggled on opponents’ home courts. Not counting neutral-site games, they’ve lost all five road games this season and eight in a row since winning Feb. 10, 2016, at Minnesota.
John Beilein, though, said his team is not playing a make-or-break game at Michigan State.
“It does not define our season yet,” Beilein said. “Our season will be defined at the end of the year as we continue to grow.”
Michigan’s top two players, Walton and Zak Irvin, are seniors as are key reserves, Duncan Robinson and Mark Donnal.
Michigan State has only one senior, Harris, in the starting lineup and brings two, Alvin Ellis and Matt Van Dyk, off the bench in limited roles.
“They’ve got a lot of experience and I think that helps sometimes, too, in a rivalry,” Izzo said. “We have a lot of guys that haven’t played in one yet.”
Bridges, though, might be the best player on the court and he sounds fired up to be on the court for the first time in the rivalry.
“I’ve watched the greats play in this game,” he said. “For me to be playing in one is a blessing.”
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