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  • With Cassius Winston leading the way, the Spartans solved the Wolverines' stingy defense and used some mettle of their own on that end to knock off their rival on the road.
By Molly Geary
February 24, 2019

Michigan State lost Joshua Langford and kept chugging, opening 2019 with seven straight Big Ten wins before hitting a surprising three-game skid that included losses to Indiana and Illinois.

In the middle of that, it was announced that Langford won’t be coming back this year, making the Spartans’ goals that much tougher and putting more pressure on Cassius Winston, their undersized point guard putting together an All-America-type junior season.

And just when MSU seemed to be getting back on track, earning a crucial road win over Wisconsin, star center Nick Ward was lost indefinitely with a hairline fracture in his hand.

So what did the Spartans do? They kept chugging. And by doing so, they delivered a message to the nation: We're still here.

After getting a bit of a scare at home against Rutgers in their first full game without Ward, Tom Izzo’s team made the intra-state trip to Ann Arbor to face rival Michigan with plenty at stake. In addition to the clash serving as a pivotal résumé-boosting opportunity for both sides, the two schools entered Sunday tied with Purdue atop the Big Ten at 13–3.

Yet despite not having Langford or Ward, and being 4.5-point road underdogs, the visitors took Round 1 of the annual heavyweight rivalry, pulling away for a 77–70 win.

The Spartans scored 77 points on the nation’s second-most efficient defense—and it was—who else?—Winston leading the way with a 27-point, eight-assist effort that eventually had MSU fans in attendance raining down chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” that were audible on the broadcast despite being in enemy territory.

Winston played all 40 minutes of the contest—partly because he’s so good and partly out of necessity. He naturally played a big role in unlocking the stingy Wolverine D, helping take advantage of what can be one of its lone weaknesses on that end. Per Synergy Sports data, Michigan ranks 242nd nationally in opposing points per possession off screens, and Winston and MSU did a good job attacking with ball screens that wore their rival down. It all added up to 1.24 PPP on the day, the most any team has scored against the Wolverines this season.

Also key for the visiting side was both Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman stepping up down low in Ward’s absence, finishing with a combined 30 points, 16 points and three assists. Without Ward, Michigan State wasn’t quite its usual self on the offensive boards, but it made up for it by only turning the ball over six times, an invaluable stat for a team that sometimes can’t get out of its own way in that area.

For all of what the Spartans did right on offense, though, it’s their defense that eventually turned the game on its head on Sunday. After hot starts for both teams had MSU leading 39–37 at halftime, Michigan came out of the locker room seemingly on a mission, jumping ahead with a 14–6 run in the first four minutes of the second half. It looked poised to take control of the game, something Izzo sensed when he called timeout with 15:32 to go and his team down six.

From then on, Michigan State clamped down on defense, outscoring the Wolverines 32–19 the rest of the way. That included a critical five-minute Michigan drought without a field goal, during which MSU went from being down one to leading by seven. The Spartans’ defense may not be on the level of Michigan’s, but it is excellent in its own right, ranking ninth on kenpom and holding opponents to the second-lowest two-point shooting mark nationally (40.8%). That defense wasn't always great in Ann Arbor, but MSU locked in when it needed to in order to deliver the marquee win.

For Michigan, there’s no way around the fact that Sunday represented a missed opportunity. At home and with its opponent missing a vital piece in Ward, it came up empty, losing at the Crisler Center for the first time in more than a year. It not only puts it a game back in the Big Ten race, but also hurts it in the race for NCAA tournament seeding—especially on a weekend in which most of the Wolverines' peers battling on or near the two-line (Kentucky, UNC and Michigan State) all won.

Offensively, the Wolverines got decent-to-good games from almost all of their starters, with Ignas Brazdeikis, Jon Teske, Zavier Simpson and Jordan Poole all scoring in double figures. But Charles Matthews had just four points on 1-for-8 shooting and missed some time in the first half with an injury scare, and the bench once again offered little, with a combined six points, two rebounds and one assist. Depth continues to be a concern for this team, especially this deep into the season.

In less than two weeks these schools will hold a rematch, meeting in East Lansing on March 9, the final game of the regular season for both. Before that, the Wolverines must navigate a road trip to Maryland and what should be a home win over Nebraska, while MSU gets winnable games at Indiana and also vs. the Cornhuskers. By that March 9 finale, the Big Ten very well may still hang in the balance, with Purdue likely to stick around until the very end as well.

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