Michigan State, Michigan On Bubble At Big Ten’s Midway Point

NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer

EAST LANSING (AP) — If there’s one win Michigan State can always be pleased with, it’s a victory over rival Michigan.

Freshman star Miles Bridges was enjoying it — but he was also focused on the task ahead.

“The pressure’s not off,” he said. “We still need every one of these games.”

Michigan State’s 70-62 victory over the Wolverines on Sunday snapped a three-game losing streak and broke a tie with Michigan in the standings. Aside from that, the situation hasn’t changed much for either team. At the midway point of their Big Ten schedules, both can be considered bubble teams for the NCAA Tournament.

That’s not a particularly comfortable spot for Michigan State, which has made the NCAAs 19 times in a row. The Spartans (13-9, 5-4) are in fifth place in the conference. Michigan (14-8, 4-5) is one of five teams tied for sixth.

The Wolverines are under pressure as well. After winning Big Ten titles in 2012 and 2014 — with a Final Four appearance in between — Michigan missed the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and barely made it last year. If the Wolverines fall short again — with two seniors playing major roles in Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin — that would be a significant disappointment.

“I think we just beat ourselves too much,” sophomore Moe Wagner said. “Give in to pressure, settle for jump shots, defensively just have lags of focus at moments when we can’t have them.”

If the pressure was on Michigan State to hold serve at home Sunday, it will shift to Michigan when the Wolverines host the rematch Feb. 7. In fact, Michigan could really use victories in each of its next two games — Saturday at home against Ohio State and against the Spartans three days later.

That’s because five of Michigan’s final seven Big Ten games will be on the road, and the Wolverines haven’t won a true road game all season.

“This team is going to have great challenges down the road,” Michigan coach John Beilein said.

Michigan has some nice wins on its resume, such as neutral-site victories over Marquette and SMU in November, but as of Monday night, the Wolverines were ranked 69th in the RPI according to rpiforecast.com. Michigan State was 45th.

The Spartans play their next two games on the road, Thursday night at Nebraska and at Michigan the following week. The Spartans have wins over Wichita State, Minnesota (twice) and Northwestern that could help their postseason resume. They’d be in a better spot if they had avoided losses to the likes of Northeastern, Penn State and Ohio State.

“We definitely have to bring it on the road. We have to focus on that,” guard Cassius Winston said. “We have to bring the energy from the jump once the game starts.”

There are plenty of games remaining, but neither Michigan State nor Michigan has too much margin for error. They could both end up missing the NCAA Tournament, which would be a bit of a shock given the stature of the programs and their preseason expectations.

But each team has the ability to finish the regular season strong. Michigan State took a step in that direction last weekend, and Michigan will have its chances to do the same.

“I am proud of this team for bouncing back because it’s not easy either when you lose three in a row and people aren’t happy with you, coaches aren’t happy with you,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s part of the growing process that I think will really help this team. Now we will see.”

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More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

 

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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