When the college basketball circus pulls into the Great Lakes State on Saturday, the star attraction will be a pair of zeroes.
Michigan State and Michigan play a showdown of epic proportions in East Lansing, a clash between the last two undefeated teams in Big Ten play. ESPN's College Gameday will create plenty of circus atmosphere at the Breslin Center before the center ring features the Spartans-Wolverines battle. But look around the floor if you're too busy focusing on the big picture — the one that says this game will go a long way toward determining a Big Ten champion — and notice the star power these two teams pack, the gluttony of weapons wearing both green and white and maize and blue.
Of course, many will talk about who's not playing — it's a conversation that warrants plenty of attention, as Tom Izzo will be missing his two big men in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, while preseason All-America forward Mitch McGary will be wearing street clothes on the Michigan bench. But, as John Beilein pointed out Friday, there's plenty of other weapons to have to concern yourself with. And the same goes for the McGary-less Wolverines. Heck, there's a reason neither of these teams have lost yet in conference play.
"The thing that makes them go this year is just having an all-around attack," Michigan State forward Matt Costello said. "(Nik) Stauskas is playing out of his mind right now, but they've got (Caris) LeVert, Derrick Walton, Zak Irvin, all these guys on the outside, Spike Albrecht, all these guys that can attack. And they've got two bigs down there rotating doing a good job, just playing solid roles and beating people up on the inside. They're just a more complete team, I would say, and very, very dangerous."
Of all the great players in this game, Stauskas is having the best year of them all so far. His 18.5 points per game lead the Big Ten. But right on his tail is Michigan State guard Gary Harris. The conference's preseason player of the year is averaging 18.3 points per game. Not much further down the conference scoring list is Keith Appling, the senior point guard who's driving the bus for the third-ranked Spartans.
"Of the great point guards we've played against, he's one of the best," Beilein said. "He's a four-year player who's played a ton of minutes. He's slippery, he can get to where he wants to get to, and we have to do the best we can containing him both in the fast break, shot-clock time and then anything that they draw up for him."
Will the lack of Payne and Dawson make the Wolverines breath easy? Forget about it.
"There's nothing about playing Michigan State that's a relief," Beilein said. "If they put (Denzel) Valentine as the four-man, then they'll be quick as hell all over the place. They're not the post-up team they've been in the past, so as a result they may be really good playing small, I think they have been. No matter what five players they put out on the floor, they're going to be good."
Stauskas has been saying it's confidence that has the Wolverines playing so well of late. After a four-loss non-conference schedule, Michigan is playing like the team that voters ranked in the preseason top 10. But the Wolverines aren't alone. The Spartans are playing terrifically, as well. And if it's confidence you're looking for, look no further than Harris.
"They're a good team. They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. They're in a good rhythm, and they're scoring offensively," Harris said. "They're hot right now, so we're looking to end that streak when they come to Breslin."