Michigan State's star junior Keith Appling can take over games.
Big Ten basketball followers will be in for a treat Tuesday when the Michigan State Spartans host their bitter in-state rival, the Michigan Wolverines at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
In the past, this match was of little interest to those outside of the state of Michigan. The Spartans had trouble on the football field, but they dominated the Wolverines on the hardwood.
Times have changed.
The Wolverines (21-3, 8-3 B1G) have emerged in the past couple of years as a legitimate threat to Tom Izzo, and Co. Michigan State (20-4, 9-2 B1G) can no longer afford to look past Michigan, one of the Big Ten's elite.
Michigan looks to have its most talented team since the glory years of the Fab Five, while the Spartans...well, they're the Spartans—they're always a challenge.
Maize and Blue versus Green and White; how can the Spartans avoid falling at the Breslin Center to the Wolverines?
Let's preview the game between the pair of top-10 worthy clubs by highlighting Michigan State's top five keys to downing coach John Beilen's surging contenders.
Wolverines sophomore Trey Burke is one of the best college hoops has to offer.
Trey Burke is one of the most talented and exciting players in all of college basketball.
Returning to Michigan for his sophomore season instead of jumping into the NBA Draft was an excellent decision, but his presence gives Michigan State reason to be concerned.
The dynamic sophomore is the Big Ten's second-leading scorer, averaging an outstanding 18.2 points per game. Burke takes shots at will, and he leads the conference in field goals made with 163.
With the game's outcome hanging in the balance with just seconds to go, bet your bottom dollar that Wolverines coach John Beilein will call Burke's number, leaving his team's fate in the hands of his most important player.
With that being said, the Spartans have to concentrate on limiting Burke. Stopping him from reaching his scoring average is a task in itself. However, it's imperative for the Spartans to blanket Burke at all costs if the game comes down to one final shot.
Burke isn't afraid to shoot from anywhere on the floor. His fantastic ability to befuddle defenders is second to none. The slightest head fake could throw a Spartans defender—quite possibly Keith Appling—out of rhythm, resulting in a clutch made from beyond the three-point line and a Wolverines victory.
Although Michigan lost to Indiana on Feb. 2, 81-73, Burke scored 25 points, showcasing his lethal offensive skills against arguably the Big Ten's top team.
Michigan will need Jordan Morgan on Tuesday, but his status for the duel with Michigan State is questionable.
Jordan Morgan is Michigan's force inside.
However, the Spartans would do themselves a favor by mimicking what the Wisconsin Badgers did Saturday during a 65-62 overtime win over Michigan.
Morgan, a 6'8", 250-pound junior, didn't play in the loss due to a severe ankle injury. His status for Tuesday's showdown with Michigan State is questionable. The Badgers took full advantage of Morgan's absence by attacking the paint and getting hard-fought baskets.
Ben Brust's 40-foot heave certainly helped the Badgers down the Wolverines at the Kohl Center.
But with a healthy Morgan cleaning the glass and bumping Wisconsin's big men, it's quite possible that Michigan would have walked away with a win instead of an agonizing defeat.
The Wolverines do have reinforcements in Jon Horford and Mitch McGary, but the Spartans can counteract the pair with Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, both of whom are more experienced and accustomed to the rigors of the Big Ten.
Branden Dawson is incredibly effective when he bull rushes the rim. Without a roadblock like Morgan in the way, Dawson will likely be given the green light from Tom Izzo to exploit mismatches with Michigan's backup big men.
Michigan State needs another Kansas-like performance from Keith Appling to beat Michigan on Tuesday.
Michigan State can get away with a victory against middle-of-the road teams without huge contributions from Keith Appling.
But the Spartans won't hang around Michigan on Tuesday night if the junior fails to deliver.
A simple look back against earlier battles with quality teams will reinforce that point.
Appling scored 17 points against then-No. 23 UConn in Michigan State's 66-62 season-opening loss in Germany. Without his presence, the Huskies would likely have won by a much larger margin.
Appling poured 19 points on then-seventh-ranked Kansas just four days later in the Spartans' 67-64 victory.
Not ranked at the time, Miami (Fla.) would have further distanced itself from the Spartans in its 67-59 triumph. Appling put up 15 points against the Hurricanes, who now look to be one of the country's upper-echelon teams.
It's a two-sided coin. Big nights from Appling don't necessarily guarantee a win, but hearty scoring efforts from him keep the Spartans from being blown out of the water, evidenced by the Miami game example.
But here's a strange one to ponder. In Michigan State's 75-70 loss to then-No. 7 Indiana, Appling scored just three points against the Hoosiers. Known for taking over games in the late stages, a final-minute spree from Appling could have pushed the Spartans past Indiana.
However, he fouled out with 5:14 to play.
It's an obvious statement to make, but if Appling doesn't score at least 15 on Tuesday against the Wolverines (and stay out of foul trouble), the Spartans' chances of winning dramatically decrease.
[View Appling's game log here]
Tom Izzo's Spartans have limited turnovers lately -- that has to remain true Tuesday against Michigan.
Michigan State had the turnover fever earlier this season, but it's taken better care of the ball during the past couple of conference matches.
Averaging 13.7 turnovers an outing, the Spartans committed just nine giveaways in their 78-65 win Saturday over Purdue.
Valuing the ball led to a 61-50 victory over Minnesota—Michigan State turned over the ball just five times.
The Badgers had a hard time at the free-throw line during their 49-47 loss to Michigan State, but the Spartans did a respectable job by limiting turnovers with 10.
Michigan State gave away the ball 18 times in a 75-70 loss to Indiana. That goes to show you that turnovers, especially in close games, can make or break a team.
The Spartans are hard to top at the Breslin Center.
Michigan has defeated Michigan State just once in East Lansing since 1997 (61-57 win, Jan. 27, 2011).
The Spartans are 14-0 at home this season, and Tom Izzo rarely loses within the friendly confines of the Breslin Center.
Here's an excerpt from Izzo's bio on MSUSpartans.com that illustrates his upper hand:
Over the past 15 seasons, Izzo has compiled an impressive 379-141 (.729) record. A quick look at other stats further demonstrates the Spartans' success over that stretch: 178-72 (.712) in the Big Ten; 214-21 (.911) at the Breslin Center, including a Big Ten record 53-game winning streak; 86-77 (.528) against Top 25 teams (including two wins over No. 1-ranked teams); 55-26 (.679) in postseason play and 37-14 (.725) in the NCAA Tournament.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81