First place in the Big Ten Conference standings will be on the line when the Michigan basketball team travels to East Lansing this Saturday to square off with archival Michigan State. The Wolverines and Spartans are the only two teams in the league without a loss, which only adds a gallon of gasoline to the blazing fire.
Until recently, Michigan State dominated this rivalry. Between 1999-2010, the Spartans were 17-3 against Michigan.
Under head coach John Beilein, though, the tide has taken a significant turn. The Wolverines have won four of the last six meetings, including the most recent matchup in the series. Here is a quick reminder of how that one played out on March 3, 2013.
However, last season's battle at the Breslin Center did not go as well for Michigan. An emotionally charged Michigan State team came out and hit the Wolverines in the mouth early. Needless to say, they never managed to recover and were run off the floor in a 75-52 loss that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicates.
Michigan is now set to reenter its own little house of horrors, but it appears to be a more favorable matchup this time around.
The Spartans will be without junior small forward Branden Dawson, who broke a bone in his hand while watching film Thursday morning, and head coach Tom Izzo has said senior center Adreian Payne's chances of playing are "slim to none."
In all likelihood, this will be the fifth straight game Payne spends on the bench, which has proven to be more problematic than the Green and White faithful would care to admit. Sure, Michigan State has continued to chalk up wins, but its interior offense is nowhere near as effective.
Earlier this week against Indiana, Spartan big men combined for just four points.
Injuries aside, Michigan still has to execute in what will be the most hostile environment it has seen all season. Here are its keys to beating a third straight Top-10 opponent this weekend.
Contain Keith Appling
Shortly after the Wolverines topped Iowa on Thursday night, Adam Ruff of Spartan Sports Network raised a very interesting question.
Tell me this, if Harris/Stauskas and Dawson/ GRIII matchups are a wash, who on UM can stop Appling? Even if he is a bit beaten up?— Adam Ruff (@Spartan_Radio) January 23, 2014
Obviously the Dawson-Glenn Robinson III matchup is now a moot point, but the way Nik Stauskas and Gary Harris are playing, those two should cancel each other out. Containing Keith Appling has to be Michigan's top priority.
The Pershing, Mich. native is playing the best and most efficient basketball of his four-year career. Appling is averaging 15.6 points, 4.6 assists, shooting 47 percent from the field and hitting three-pointers at a 42 percent clip. All of those numbers are career-bests.
Although sophomore point guard Spike Albrecht had an excellent defensive effort against Iowa, he has been a liability more often than not at that end of the floor. Appling poses much more of a challenge to Albrecht than the Hawkeyes' Mike Gesell did as well.
Even if freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. is back to 100 percent, he will have a difficult time checking Appling.
Keeping Appling out of the lane and from collapsing Michigan's defense is the biggest key to scoring a second-straight victory over the Spartans.
Feed Glenn Robinson III Early and Often
With Dawson out of the lineup, this is set up to be a monster night for Glenn Robinson III. The sophomore small forward has been on a tear as of late and posted back-to-back 14-point games against Iowa and Wisconsin.
Over the past five games, Robinson is averaging 14.8 points per game and knocking down 53 percent of his attempts.
It is likely Denzel Valentine or Kenny Kaminski will be tasked with guarding Robinson. Valentine seems like the best option given his quickness, but that would leave several opportunities for Caris LeVert to take Kaminski to the hole, which is his greatest strength. The problem remains the same even if the defensive roles are reversed.
The Wolverines should feed him the rock early and allow him to drive, or set screens and open up a few mid-range jumpers to get him going. The 6'6", 220-pounder has been close to unstoppable when he is able to score away from the rim.
Getting Robinson some confidence in the opening minutes of the game is vital to Michigan's success.
Physicality, Toughness and Composure
If Michigan wants to win there, has to match that level of emotion -- even if it isn't anywhere near as personal, which I don't think it is— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) January 23, 2014
No one takes the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry more personally than Izzo. This is why his teams always come out with more emotion and intensity than they do for any other game on the schedule. The Wolverines have to play with a similar level of energy in order to walk out of the Breslin Center with a win.
The younger players from last year's team were not afraid to admit how the Spartans were the aggressors at home.
"They punked us," Michigan sophomore guard Nik Stauskas said Wednesday, per MLive's Nick Baumgardner. "They came out from the very start and were more aggressive than we were. They were getting every loose ball, every rebound and throwing the ball in the post and we couldn't do anything about it.
"Toughness is going to be key for us come Saturday."
Even with Michigan State's injury woes, this will be one of the best defenses Michigan faces all season long. The Spartans will be physical and it will be up to the Wolverines to maintain their composure and show they will not be pushed around.
Last season's team was not up to the task. It is up to this year's group to dispel the notion that the Wolverines will simply wilt in a physical battle.
Prediction: Michigan by six.
Want to talk more Michigan basketball? Follow me on Twitter: @Zach_Dirlam.