Adreian Payne has emerged as real-deal star during the past weeks for Michigan State.
Don't count out Tom Izzo's No. 9-ranked Michigan State Spartans just yet.
Despite suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season (Indiana, Ohio State), the Spartans (22-6, 11-4) are still in the hunt for a Big Ten regular-season crown.
However, they'll have to dispose of the No. 4-ranked Michigan Wolverines (23-4, 10-4) on Sunday at the Crisler Center in order to grab a piece of the pie for the fourth time since 2009.
Michigan State breezed by the Wolverines on Feb. 12, notching a decisive 75-52 victory in front of a riled up Izzone. The Wolverines, at the time, were the No. 4 team in the nation, but they certainly didn't play up to par at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.
Keith Appling was M.I.A against Indiana twice this season, and he was a no-show this past Sunday during the Spartans' 68-60 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus.
Appling has to resurrect his former game-controlling skills for Michigan State to have a chance at downing the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Furthermore, Appling has to have a sense of urgency if he hopes to claim at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
Every game is a challenge in the Big Ten. Michigan State has to play in a similar fashion that it played during its past duel with Michigan to escape Crisler with a victory and keep its conference championship hopes alive and well.
Does Keith Appling have something to prove Sunday? Sure he does.
Twelve combined points in three conference losses -- that's the production Michigan State received from Keith Appling in two setbacks to Indiana and one at the hands of Ohio State.
Do the math -- that's just four points per game.
Considering that Appling once averaged just over 14 points per contest, his abysmal output against the Hoosiers and Buckeyes gives reason to question just how he'll do Sunday against Michigan.
Appling had a respectable 11-point, seven-rebound game Feb. 12 against the Wolverines, but he converted just two-of-five from the line and sank four-of-14 from the field. Due to the strength of those around him, Appling didn't have to put the fate of the Spartans into his own hands during the last go-round with Michigan.
But let's assume that the Wolverines want payback. OK, we don't have to assume that, because there's no doubt that Michigan has something to prove Sunday.
Appling has the potential to string together a signature game, a career-defining effort, against Michigan. He's dealt with warranted criticism since the Spartans lost two straight, but he can redeem himself with a solid all-around effort in Ann Arbor.
The Spartans won't have a prayer if Appling doesn't ring up a double-digit point total, create opportunities for others to score and stay out of foul trouble.
Trey Burke. Enough said.
Since losing to Michigan State, Wolverines star guard Trey Burke has erupted for 26- and 29-point games in two consecutive wins.
He put up 18 points Feb. 12 in Michigan's 75-52 blowout loss to the Spartans, but without those 18 points, Michigan would have been all the more embarrassed by its in-state rival.
It's easy to pinpoint Burke as "the guy" for the Spartans to limit. Entering Feb. 12, he was the No. 1 player to be feared; he's on absolute fire right now, so Michigan State has to be on full alert when it travel's to Burke's place.
Burke will likely play at least 30 minutes Sunday. That's a half hour of pure uncertainty; he is arguably the finest guard in all of college hoops. Shut down Burke, leave Ann Arbor with a smile -- that's the formula for the Spartans.
Adreian Payne's presence will be required Sunday.
Adreian Payne will be a key to the Spartans' mastery on the glass.
In their last meeting with the Wolverines, the Spartans carved a 40-28 rebound advantage that led to plenty of second-chance opportunities and it completely wore down the Wolverines in the paint (on both ends).
Payne was an animal against Ohio State, grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds in the losing effort in Columbus. He's emerged as a legitimate superstar in the Big Ten.
Stopping Payne again (he had just four points and four boards Feb. 12) will be Michigan's objective, but keeping him going strongly will be a key factor for the Spartans.
Michigan State needs a double-double from Payne. There's no other way around it.
Gary Harris made 5-of-9 from long range Feb. 12 versus Michigan.
Unless it's Gary Harris knocking down shot after shot, the Spartans can't fall in love with the 3-pointer Sunday.
Harris was phenomenal, converting five-of-nine from long range in Michigan State's previous romping of the Wolverines. However, without Harris, the Spartans made just two-of-11. Throwing away nine possessions in a game of possessions isn't a recipe that's conducive for success.
Stats you should know (Big Ten stats, courtesy of BigTen.org)
The Spartans are fifth in the Big Ten in 3-point accuracy (.347)
Michigan has a scoring margin of 14.7 points in wins (No. 2 in B1G). Nine possessions are, at a minimum, 18 points or so. See the connection there?
The Wolverines are the league's second-leading scoring team, averaging an outstanding 76 points per outing.
Taking too many shots from 3-point range could cost the Spartans in a big way. If Michigan State faces a deficit, its best bet would to continue pounding the paint -- that's worked wonders against other league adversaries, and it worked wonders against Michigan just two weeks ago.
These guys need to be productive Sunday.
Michigan State's bench was remarkably effective against the Wolverines two weeks ago with a 19-point offering.
Bench production has been minimal since Travis Trice's absence, and Michigan State doesn't often get much value from its reserves, other than from freshman Denzel Valentine.
Against Ohio State, Michigan State's bench came through with just 11 points.
Valentine has to be prepared, but the Spartans could surely use another Michigan-like push from freshman Matt Costello, who really bloomed with eight points and six boards in his six minutes Feb. 12 versus the Wolverines.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81