Spartans, Wolverines will be without star big men

Spartans, Wolverines will be without star big men
January 24, 2014, 6:45 pm
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Vinnie Duber

The most impressive thing about the Spartans and Wolverines isn't the dueling undefeated Big Ten records, it's the fact they've yet to lose despite what they've lost.

The Spartans have been a banged-up group all year, but no injury has been bigger than the foot pain that has sidelined senior forward Adreian Payne for the past four games. Still, though, Michigan State has kept winning. Likewise for the Wolverines, who have been without preseason All-America forward Mitch McGary for almost the entire season. Saturday's matchup between the conference's two best teams won't feature either, but what's another game to win without the key big men?

Michigan State was dealt an even larger blow Thursday, when it was announced that another forward would miss time. Branden Dawson, a junior, broke a bone in his hand slamming it against a table during a film session, and the Spartans will be without him for at least four weeks. It makes each hurdle the Spartans must climb a little higher for the next month or so, but this is what they've done all season. Matt Costello has missed four games, Gary Harris has missed three, Travis Trice has missed two.

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Michigan head coach John Beilein knows the Spartans will still give everything the Wolverines can handle, despite their absent big men.

"It's really sad to hear about Dawson because it's unfortunate, he's such a good player," Beilein said Friday. "And obviously Payne in his senior year to go through this doesn't seem right. Hopefully they're going to be back in time for March because they could do some great things in March both for themselves and the league."

Beilein can sympathize because he's going through the same thing with McGary. The sophomore forward battled back problems in the preseason and missed the first two games of the year. He played the next eight before electing to have back surgery. The last game he played was the loss to No. 1 Arizona. The Wolverines haven't lost since.

[RELATED: Spartans' Branden Dawson breaks hand, out four-plus weeks]

Credit the combo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, who have stepped up and played well as the Wolverines look for a stopgap to replace McGary's production. They've received it from another part of the floor, as sophomore guard Nik Stauskas is the Big Ten's leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. But, much like Michigan State has weathered its injuries, Michigan has found a way to keep winning in the absence of McGary.

"They lost McGary, but their two centers, you've got to remember those guys have all started throughout their career," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "So I think they become a little bit more consistent because McGary was a guy that could do a lot of different things and was a great player, but I think these other guys have upped their game because they're getting more shots, more opportunities."

It might be a smaller game Saturday when the two undefeateds collide, but expect them to do what they've been doing all along: play well regardless.