Arguably the biggest game in the Big Ten Conference will take place this Sunday when the Michigan basketball team welcomes archrival No. 13 Michigan State to the Crisler Center. The Spartans are currently a half-game ahead in the standings, but the No. 20 Wolverines can retake the lead with a win this weekend.
The Maize and Blue have taken five of the last seven meetings with Michigan State, including the most recent meeting back on Jan. 25 at the Breslin Center.
However, this rematch will be significantly different from the first time these two teams met. Keith Appling appears to be healthy once again after dishing out nine assists in just 25 minutes of action against Purdue on Thursday. Star center Adreian Payne will also be back for this second go-round after sitting out last month's clash with a foot injury.
There is still a chance Branden Dawson could come back as well:
Re: Dawson, pins due out next week and then MSU will see. Too early to rule him out/in for U-M game.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) February 13, 2014
Michigan also finds itself in a bit of a rut. Since rattling off 10 consecutive wins, the Wolverines have lost three of their five games in February.
In Michigan's three losses this month, its opponents have combined to shoot 48.1 percent from the field. Offensively, the Wolverines are having a hard time getting shots to stay down. Although they rank No. 24 nationally in field-goal percentage (47.9), they only converted 40.8 percent of their attempts in those losses.
This will be the final time Michigan faces a ranked opponent in the regular season, which means it can gain a significant edge over the Spartans with a sweep of the series and a win in its toughest remaining game.
There are three things the Wolverines need to do above all else to get that important victory.
Defend the Perimeter
One major reason why Michigan has struggled to beat quality teams as of late is its porous perimeter defense. Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana, the three teams who have beaten the Wolverines this month, combined to shoot 53.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Considering the recent performance Michigan State put on against Purdue, defending the perimeter will be more important than ever for the Maize and Blue. The Spartans knocked down a school-record 17 three-pointers and went 53.1 percent from distance in their rout of the Boilermakers.
It will not matter one bit what Michigan does at the offensive end of the floor if it cannot find a way to limit Michigan State's success from downtown.
Gary Harris is the man to watch when it comes to long-range attempts. The sophomore shooting guard is coming off a 6-of-9 performance against Purdue and drained four of six treys against the Wolverines the first time around. It will be up to Nik Stauskas and/or Caris LeVert to make things difficult for him.
Without a much-improved defensive effort along the perimeter, Michigan will be in deep trouble.
Don't Allow Adreian Payne to Dominate the Paint
Luckily, the Wolverines got to face Michigan State with Payne on the sidelines. Having him back in the lineup could make the biggest difference for the Spartans, who only lost by five points without him.
Since returning to the lineup, Payne is averaging 18.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The 6'10", 245-pounder has also shot 54.2 percent (32-of-59) overall and 44.4 percent (8-of-18) on three-pointers.
Plain and simple, he has been an absolute terror for opposing squads.
Michigan will have to lean heavily on Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford to at least slow down Payne. If he tears the defense up with jump shots, so be it. Horford and Morgan simply have to prevent him from dominating the paint.
Keeping Payne off the glass will also be a priority for the Wolverines' duo of bigs. Their last five opponents averaged 10 offensive boards, which cannot happen again if they hope to come away with another marquee victory in Ann Arbor.
Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III Must Handle the Moment
Handling success is the true measure of a champion. Right now, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, arguably Michigan's two most important players, are struggling to deal with the pressure that comes with being a star.
Horford confirmed this in an interview with Brendan F. Quinn of MLive.
"I've talked to both of them about this and I just try to help them keep things in perspective because I feel like both of them put too much pressure on themselves to put up stats," Horford said.
Robinson is averaging just 10.6 points in five February contests, while Stauskas is only putting up 10.2 this month. Robinson's average is even a bit inflated seeing as he dropped 23 points on a mediocre Nebraska squad. Stauskas has only made five of 16 three-point attempts during that same span.
Neither of those statistics bodes well for the Wolverines.
There is no simple solution for a lack of confidence or overcoming the challenges that come with pressure. Hopefully, the additional time off this week gets them both back on track. Otherwise, Michigan is going to have a hard time sweeping the Spartans.
Prediction: Michigan by three