Sunday February 1st, 2015

By the time the selection committee convenes in six weeks, all they’ll see of Michigan State’s 76-66 overtime win over Michigan is that the Spartans got a hard-fought conference win over a rival. In the immediate aftermath of the win, however, it’s easy to see why the committee may ultimately shut the Spartans out of the dance.

With Derrick Walton Jr. joining Caris LeVert on the shelf this week, the Wolverines headed into East Lansing seriously undermanned. As such, it seemed that everyone on John Beilein’s bench was available for significant minutes. Freshman Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played more than 30 minutes for the second straight game. Fellow freshman Aubrey Dawkins did, too, for the third time in four games. Sophomore Andrew Dakich, who didn’t see his first game action until last week, played 16 minutes. Given Michigan’s available roster, it should be no surprise that the Spartans were favored by 10 1/2 points at tip-off.

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And yet, it was Michigan that jumped out to an early lead behind Abdur-Rahkman. The Allentown, Pa. native had seven points and an assist in the first eight minutes of the game, pacing the Wolverines to a 15-8 lead. They held a lead for nearly the entire first half, but Denzel Valentine almost single-handedly turned the tables in the final 10 minutes of the first frame. From the seven-minute mark on, Valentine had 11 points, nine of which came from behind the arc, and two assists to rally the Spartans to a 29-24 halftime lead.

At that point, playing at home against a shorthanded, inferior team, a rock-solid tournament team -- especially one led by Tom Izzo -- should be expected to remain in control of the game. Michigan opened the second half on a 21-11 charge, with both Abdur-Rahkman and Spike Albrecht pouring in eight points. The game was played within a 10-point window for the rest of regulation, with neither team ever leading by more than five points.

Trailing by four with less than four minutes left in the game, the Spartans again appeared to take command. Branden Dawson converted a layup and then flushed home an alley-oop from Valentine on Michigan State’s next possession to tie the game. They clamped down for perhaps their best defensive possession of the game, forcing Michigan to use all 35 seconds of the shot clock before an awkward turnaround from Max Bielfeldt drew backboard. The ball caromed off the basket and into Dawson’s hands. Travis Trice then knocked down a 17-foot jumper off a high ball screen, stole a pass on the other end and assisted on a Bryn Forbes three to push the Spartans to a five-point lead with 1:24 remaining. Again, a typical Izzo team would have a game like this well in hand. But this isn’t a typical Izzo team.

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Albrecht drilled a deep three to cut the Michigan deficit to two with 42 seconds remaining. After Valentine missed the front end of a one and one, Bielfeldt put back a miss by Albrecht to tie the game. The Spartans’ endgame execution was less than ideal, as all they got was a deep three from Trice, sending the game into overtime.

That the Spartans (15-7, 6-3 Big Ten) outscored the Wolverines 10-0 in overtime only mattered inasmuch as they really couldn’t afford a loss in this game. In a way, the damage was already done. Michigan State, quite simply, does not have a great resume with six weeks left to make an impression on the committee.

The Spartans are 1-5 against the top 50 and have two sub-100 losses, including one at home to Texas Southern. They’ve played eight games against teams likely to make the tournament (including Texas Southern, which is the favorite to win the SWAC), and are 1-7 in those games. If they falter in the second half of conference play, they’ll miss the tournament for the first time since 1997 and second time in the Izzo era.

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