Despite twists and turns, Michigan and Michigan State perk along as forecast.
Entering the season, they were among popular picks to win the Big Ten. Parading unblemished league records, they are, without question, the teams to beat.
At 18-1 overall (7-0) and leaning on Gary Harris, Tom Izzo’s Spartans are ranked No. 3 in the land. John Beilen’s No. 21-ranked Wolverines are 14-4 (6-0) and ride the momentum that's wafting from Nik Stauskas' hot hand.
It goes without saying that Saturday’s clash at the Breslin Center in East Lansing will shape the early race for conference glory. From top to bottom, the Big Ten is all but Michigan and Michigan State's to lose.
The winner, obviously, will devise the proper game plan to overcome a few obstacles—which is easier said than done.
Claiming king of the hill status in the Big Ten starts now.
Injuries Rob Fans
Good thing they play twice, because Round 1 of Michigan vs. Michigan State stands to be a relaxed version of what’s to come Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor.
That's when the real teams should take the floor.
Due to back injury, Mitch McGary is out indefinitely. Initially, his circumstances were to destroy Michigan's chances of competing at this past year's national level.
Well, yes and no. The Wolverines are surviving, and much of that has to do with Beilein's excellent strategy. Dueling the Spartans will let them know where they fit into the national title puzzle, if at all.
Off to their best start during the Izzo era, the Spartans will likely be without Adreian Payne this weekend. Plagued by a sprained right foot, the star senior forward has missed the past four games. Izzo now faces a monumental decision—to play Payne, or not to play Payne.
That is the question.
And per Gillian Van Stratt of MLive.com, here’s Izzo’s answer:
Payne is a day-to-day deal. He's run twice. I don't know (if he'll play versus U-M). I don't know. I don't think he's playing, right now. He wants to play. I got the toughest coaching decision in my life to make as far that goes. Doctors have done their job, everybody else has done theirs.
Me and him are going to sit down and talk about pain and talk about whether it would be right or it would be wrong.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, Branden Dawson broke a bone in his right (shooting) hand during Thursday morning’s film session, per Joe Rexrode of The Lansing State Journal.
After viewing lackluster footage, Dawson slammed his hand on a table.
It was an ill-timed move before the biggest game of the young season, and it’ll cost him four to five weeks.
Blisters, shoulders, knees and toes—toss in Keith Appling’s never-ending laundry list of scrapes, and the Spartans have to be the unhealthiest juggernaut in the nation.
Fans lose out on this one. No McGary vs. Payne or Dawson on Glenn Robinson III.
If anyone has an advantage, it’s Beilein. He’s down one playmaker compared to Izzo’s two—and that’s discounting the bumps and bruises factor for each side.
Coaches can't change circumstances, but they can take advantage of opportunities by adjusting on the fly. Look for Beilein to do that. First place depends on it.
Tom Izzo says regardless of opponent, Adreian Payne's chances of playing Saturday 'slim to none' http://t.co/HtcX8pLqBP— Spartans News (@SpartansMLive) January 24, 2014
Harris vs. Stauskas
|3PT%||.391 (includes 0-6 vs. NW)||.410|
ESPN stats/use of calculator
Write "Harris" and "Stauskas" on two pieces of paper. Put them into a hat. Mix them, and then pull out one piece.
That's your right-now Big Ten player of the year. It's impossible to go wrong with either one (although there's a strong argument for Keith Appling, too).
Stauskas' 3-point shooting helped knock off then No. 3-ranked Wisconsin, giving Michigan a program-best road win (highest-ranked opponent). Fresh off a 26-point extravaganza against No. 10-ranked Iowa, he's averaging 20 per game over his past five.
Harris, another tactical marksman, averages 18.6 over the same span.
In the past, Michigan State has been a battle-tested, paint-driving bully. This year, shooting from beyond the arc has become its separating touch.
Michigan has been a shooting team under Beilein, so not much has changed other than frequency—without inside muscle, popping from the perimeter is important.
Play the Role
With Dawson out of the conversation, it's imperative that Denzel Valentine show up as he has during the past two games. Scoring 10 against Indiana and 15 against Illinois, Izzo's winger changes dynamics.
When playing up to normal standards, Valentine is a great passer, driver and serviceable shooter.
His next step is realizing that he doesn't have to settle for the long ball; other than that, Valentine has a well-rounded arsenal and could very easily be a go-to on Saturday.
So, who wins Saturday?
Good for about eight points and six boards per night, he also facilitates with 3.9 assists (second behind Appling's 4.6).
Point guards make things go, and Appling has done so while wounded and winded. Nearing the halfway point, having Appling at full tilt is of high priority. Averaging 15.6 points, nearly five assists and shooting .470 from the floor, he's playing at an elite level.
Spartans senior point men tend to take charge when their teams need them most.
Stauskas isn't the only key for Michigan, but he's the biggest. Robinson III gives muscle on the boards. Arguably just as athletic as Dawson, Robinson III is Beilein's most explosive dunker. Rampant on the court, the sophomore gives his team 14 and five each night.
However, Derrick Walton's streaky scoring ways may be a difference maker. Scoring 12 points in the opening minutes vs. Penn State was just the beginning—he's on his way to prominence in the Big Ten.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81