Bragging rights won't be the only thing at stake Tuesday night when the eighth-ranked Spartans (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten) host the fourth-ranked Wolverines (21-3, 8-3) in the first matchup of 20-win teams in Division I basketball this season.
Michigan State will be playing to move into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten against its on-the-rise rival, and another victory might help NCAA tournament positioning. Michigan wants to win to move within a half-game of first-place and top-ranked Indiana in the conference standings and to boost its shot at being a top-seeded team next month.
"The nation is talking about it now," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "And, there's a sick side of me that it makes happy. Who wouldn't rather dominate in a rivalry series? But it's not a series that should be dominated by either squad because both teams should be good and both teams are good this year. In my estimation, this is their best team in a lot of years."
The Wolverines have their best overall record through 24 games in program history and were ranked No. 1 two weeks ago for the first time since the 1992-93 season in what was the second year of the Fab Five era.
"Bringing Michigan back to the national scene is certainly happening right now," coach John Beilein said.
Michigan, though, has lost two of its last three games and is desperately trying to avoid having back-to-back setbacks in the regular season for the first time in more than two years.
The Spartans certainly have a lot to play for, too. With their next two home games against the Wolverines and Hoosiers, the conference race is coming through East Lansing.
"If we win this game, we have an edge on everybody," Michigan State senior Derrick Nix said. "We want that. It's a must-win game."
The point guard matchup might prove to be pivotal.
Michigan is led by Trey Burke, a national player of the year candidate who's the first Big Ten player since ex-Michigan State star Magic Johnson to average more than 17 points and seven assists.
The Spartans rise and fall with the play of Keith Appling, whose clutch play late in games has helped them win three in a row and nine of their last 10 games. Appling is scoring 14-plus points per game and with four-plus assists per game, he directs a balanced offense with four other players averaging at least nine points.
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Beilein said he began feeling uneasy about how he was going to find someone to guard Appling when he scored 49 points for Detroit Pershing in the 2009 Class A state title game, and found his answer by recruiting Burke out of Columbus, Ohio.
"Our guy is pretty good, too," Beilein said. "They'll go at it."
Michigan State seems to have more muscle inside with Nix, a 6-foot-9, 270-pound center, and 6-10, 240-pound power forward Adreian Payne going against Jordan Morgan, if he can play with a sprained right ankle, and Glen Robinson III. If Morgan can't play, the Wolverines will lean on sophomore Jon Horford along with freshmen Mitch McGary and Max Bielfeldt.
The Wolverines may have more quickness with shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. going against Gary Harris and when Robinson or Nik Stauskas have the ball, or are running around screens, while being guarded by Branden Dawson.
"It should make for a heck of a game," Izzo said. "It's fun to actually feel like the game matters in every way shape or form both locally and nationally. I'm not sure that has happened since I've been here where both are important."
No, it hasn't.
The closest both teams have been to being Top 10 teams when they've played was March 3, 1990, when Izzo was an assistant under Jud Heathcote, and the 14th-ranked Spartans beat No. 8 Michigan 78-70.
For the first of two highly anticipated matchups of the rivals, Payne predicts the Breslin Center will be "shaking" with fired-up fans.
Burke doesn't expect crowd noise to rattle the Wolverines, who have played in raucous arenas at Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
"We're used to it," he said.
Press; By LARRY LAGE]
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