The Michigan Wolverines basketball team will travel to East Lansing Saturday to battle the in-state rival Michigan State Spartans. Michigan State (7-0) currently sits atop the Big Ten standings with Michigan (6-0) just a half game behind; the two schools are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the conference.
Michigan State, the preseason Big Ten favorite, has largely lived up to the hype. Tom Izzo's team is 18-1 overall and ranked No. 3 in the country; but Big Ten wins haven't come easily for the Spartans at home in 2014. In three conference games in East Lansing, Michigan State has survived in overtime twice and beaten Indiana by five.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Michigan State's close calls at home is the continued absence of star forward Adreian Payne. Payne has missed four straight games with a strained right foot, and Izzo says that his chances of returning on Saturday against Michigan are "slim to none."
In addition to Payne's injury, the Spartans will now have to deal with the loss of forward Branden Dawson for four to five weeks after the junior broke his hand slamming it on the table in frustration while watching game film. Before the injury, Dawson was leading the conference in offensive rebounding. Payne and Dawson are the frontcourt duo that made Michigan State so intimidating in the preseason.
With the two big men on the bench Saturday, Izzo will look to guards Gary Harris and Keith Appling to pick up the slack. Harris has been on a tear since the start of Big Ten play, averaging 18.9 points and 3.1 steals per game. Appling has been steady as a senior, leading the Spartans in assists and minutes per game.
Michigan's season has been more of a roller coaster ride for head coach John Beilein. Coming off of a Final Four appearance in 2013, the Wolverines started just 8-4 in nonconference play after tough losses to currently-ranked No. 1 Arizona, No. 16 Iowa State and No. 18 Duke. Just before the start of Big Ten play, Michigan received another huge blow when preseason All-American forward Mitch McGary underwent back surgery that put him on the bench indefinitely.
The loss of McGary sparked the veteran duo of Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, who have dominated inside during his absence. In wins over top-10 opponents Wisconsin and Iowa, Horford and Morgan combined for a total of 24 points on 11 for 12 shooting and 25 rebounds.
Despite their strong performances, Michigan's post players have gone largely unnoticed during guard Nik Stauskas's recent surge. The sophomore has tallied 70 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists in the last three games and is becoming one of the most difficult offensive players to guard in the country. Stuaskas leads the Big Ten in scoring and is second in three-point percentage, three pointers made and assist/turnover ratio.
Michigan and Michigan State have split the season series each of the last two years, with the home team winning all four games.
Though East Lansing has been unkind to Beilein's group the past two seasons, in which Michigan has lost by 10 and 23 in the Breslin Center, this year's Michigan team has the most impressive road resume in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have beaten Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road in January, and those three teams are otherwise a combined 30-0 at home this season.
Saturday's winner will be the final undefeated team in the Big Ten, but the loser will remain in second place as the rest of the conference has at least two loses. The game will be Michigan's fifth against a top-10 team this season and third in a row.
The rivalry is as strong as it has ever been between the Michigan schools, as Saturday will be the record fifth straight time the two teams meet as ranked opponents.