Another day, another battle between two top-10 teams in the Big Ten.
The No. 4 Michigan Wolverines have dropped two of their last three and fallen a game behind the conference leaders, while No. 8 Michigan State has quietly reeled off three straight and nine of its last 10 to propel itself a game ahead of its intrastate rival.
While this has the makings of yet another college hoops instant classic, the Spartans hold a historic advantage (via ESPN Stats & Info):
Michigan hasnt won a road game vs a Michigan State team ranked in the top 10 since Magic Johnson was a freshman in E. Lansing (Feb. 2, 1978)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 12, 2013
Still, this Michigan squad hasn't been this talented since Shaq was being illegally recruited by Nick Nolte—sidenote: There were a lot of good movies released in 1994—and if the Spartans are going to please the home crowd, several important players are going to need to rise to the occasion.
Let's take a look.
Michigan has talent all over the court, but it has significantly less down low.
Jordan Morgan is questionable with an injured ankle and Jon Horford hasn't made much of an impact this season, but stud freshman Mitch McGary is quickly blossoming into a major threat.
In his last three contests, the Indiana native is averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and three steals per game. He isn't a polished low-post threat, but he has a knack of outworking, out-hustling and generally out-Hansbrough-ing whoever guards him, and as a result, he is 10th in all of America in offensive rebounding percentage.
Not only will it be Payne's job to constantly put a body on McGary to keep him off the glass, but the junior will need to take advantage of the freshman on the offensive end, as well.
Since getting into a fight with Branden Dawson in January, Payne has averaged 12.1 points (13.8 if you take out his two-point stinker against Wisconsin) per contest, up from his season average of 9.5.
Payne has the talent to score from all over the court and skill set to take over games, and doing just that on Tuesday night will give the Spartans a major boost.
Michigan can score in absolute bunches.
The Wolverines are third in the nation in points per possession and sixth in effective field-goal percentage.
Trey Burke's penetration is deadly; Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas can shoot the lights out; Glenn Robinson III attacks the rim like he's mad at it; McGary, as mentioned earlier, converts lots of second-chance opportunities.
If you're going to beat Michigan, you're going to have to play defense. In the Wolverines' three losses, they have scored 0.840, 1.009 and 0.899 points per possession, their three lowest marks of the season.
Who should Dawson guard?
You aren't going to beat them in a shootout.
Enter Dawson, Michigan State's most active perimeter defender on the wing.
Everyone needs to defend for the Spartans, but Dawson stands out as the most important. The sophomore is averaging 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per game, and while he'll likely match up with Hardaway or Robinson, he has the important versatility to be able to switch screens (which is a necessity against Michigan) and match up with the other guards.
In addition to his defense, Dawson's rebounding and effectiveness in transition will be integral to the Spartans' success.
This one is obvious.
Appling, the junior point guard leader, will have many roles in this one.
First, he can't let his team come out slow. If that happens, Michigan will capitalize and run away early.
Second, he's going to have to slow down Trey Burke, arguably the most dynamic point guard in the land. No big deal.
Finally, Appling needs to be there for the Spartans down the stretch.
His importance in clutch time should be no secret. In the Spartans' only loss in the past 10 games, Appling scored just three points in 19 minutes against Indiana. He was in foul trouble all night and was ejected with just over five minutes left to play.
Without their leader in the game, the Spartans turned the ball over several times and failed to score in the final three-plus minutes of a 75-70 narrow loss.
When he is playing during close games, however, Appling does things like this:
And believe me, if this is like seemingly every other Big Ten game this season, it's going to be a close, back-and-forth battle, and Appling will be needed during the final ticks.