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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — When Michigan State faced Michigan around this time last year, both teams were unbeaten in conference play, setting up a showdown the likes of which this state has rarely seen.
Now the Spartans and Wolverines are playing catch-up in the Big Ten race, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn't want to hear any talk about how this rivalry is diminished.
"The tenor will never change for me, because this is about a rivalry. It's about something that I have highs and exciting moments as I look back on my years here, and I have anger and disappointing moments as I look back on my years here," Izzo said. "I'll never lose those. They'll never, ever change. There will be a lot of big games that I'll play against other teams, but nothing will ever mean as much as playing in this game."
Michigan State and Michigan are both unranked entering Sunday's matchup in East Lansing. The Spartans have lost three overtime games this season, and the Wolverines have struggled to stay in NCAA tournament contention after a couple puzzling nonconference defeats and a season-ending injury to Caris LeVert.
There's a different vibe than last season, when the state of Michigan was the center of attention in Big Ten basketball for a while. Michigan won the league's regular-season title, beating Michigan State twice along the way, then the Spartans beat the Wolverines in the championship game of the conference tournament.
Both teams lost in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, leaving Wisconsin as the Big Ten's lone representative at the Final Four, and now it's the fifth-ranked Badgers (19-2, 7-1) who are leading the league, with Michigan (13-8, 6-3) and Michigan State (14-7, 5-3) among a number of teams chasing. The Spartans are still in decent shape to make the NCAA tournament but can't afford a late slide. Michigan has more work to do to make up for a four-game December losing streak.
The Wolverines lost to the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan during that skid, while Michigan State lost later in December to Texas Southern.
The Wolverines lost LeVert to a foot injury, and point guard Derrick Walton missed Tuesday's win over Nebraska with a toe issue. Walton's status for the Michigan State game is uncertain.
"He's been very limited in anything that he can do," coach John Beilein said Saturday. "We'll know more (Sunday)."
Michigan has fought through its injury issues lately, with unheralded freshmen such as Aubrey Dawkins and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman making contributions alongside talented sophomore Zak Irvin. The Wolverines have seemingly pulled out all the stops at times, remaining competitive despite some odd lineup combinations — and switching defensive schemes with regularity.
"Anytime you get a team that switches them up, everybody's got to be on the same page or it can get you in trouble," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said.
Although talented players like Michigan's Nik Stauskas and Michigan State's Adreian Payne have moved on to the NBA since last season, this rivalry is still simmering thanks to all the crucial meetings between the teams in recent years.
"It's a great balance right now for two really good basketball programs, and that's the way I believe it always should have been and will be going forward," Beilein said. "You have a tremendous program in Michigan State. We were a little bit behind them when we first started here, and now I think it's very balanced with two really great programs."
No matter who is healthy and playing, this matchup is big.
"This game should mean more, and it does," Izzo said. "If every game just means the same, to me, you never should ever come to a school like this."
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