When the Michigan Wolverines (18-7 overall, 10-3 Big Ten) left East Lansing with a win over the Michigan State Spartans (22-5, 11-3) on Jan. 25, they did so with a slim one-game lead in the conference. Since then the race tightened between the in-state rivals.
With three conference losses apiece, the two Michigan schools will meet in Ann Arbor at noon Sunday in what could determine the eventual 2014 Big Ten regular season champion. A victory for the Wolverines would put them back alone in first place with a sweep of the Spartans, who look to grab a 1 1/2 game lead of their own with just a few weeks remaining.
Though Michigan and Michigan State refuse to surrender a suddenly slim lead in the Big Ten, neither team enters the in-state rematch playing its best basketball.
After starting the conference slate with a perfect 8-0 record, Michigan dropped three of its next five games, including a 75-62 drubbing in the Crisler Center at the hands of Wisconsin in its last contest.
Michigan State set a school record with 17 three-point baskets in its last game against Purdue, but struggles with consistency, having lost four of its last eight games. The last time coach Tom Izzo's team won two straight games was more than a month ago, when a win over Indiana marked its 11th straight victory.
Guard play dominated the game when the two teams met in January. Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton, Jr. combined for 55 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists while Michigan State's Gary Harris led all scorers with 27 points on nine of 16 shooting. Keith Appling, who returned from a wrist injury to tally nine assists against Purdue Thursday, struggled shooting against the Wolverines but took advantage of the hot Harris and dished out 10 assists.
Michigan coach John Beilein needs better production from Stauskas Sunday, as the star shooting guard last shot more than 50 percent in East Lansing. In the six games between meetings with Michigan State, Stauskas shot just 40 percent and averaged just 11.2 points per game, well below his season average of 16.7.
One key element this time around comes in the form of Michigan State's Adreian Payne, who scored 20 or more points in three of the four games leading up to the rematch with Michigan. The senior forward sat out the first game against the Wolverines with a sprained right foot.
Key players that won't return on Sunday include each team's rebounding leader: Michigan's Mitch McGary (8.3 rebounds per game) and Michigan State's Branden Dawson (8.7). McGary underwent back surgery in late December and Dawson broke his hand slamming it on a table in frustration while watching game film.
Despite the absence of these to players, rebound could play a major role on Sunday.
In Michigan's loss to Wisconsin Sunday, the Badgers buried the Wolverines with 10 offensive rebounds. Michigan ranks 275th in the nation in rebounding, while Michigan State is 45th. The performance of Michigan's Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford looms large in the upcoming game, as they attempt to keep Payne and Denzel Valentine off the glass.
Unlike in many recent meetings, more than just bragging rights hang in the balance during Sunday's matchup. The fast-approaching Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes lie just two games behind the Michigan squads in the loss column of the Big Ten standings with a rush of other teams right behind them. Sunday's loser risks falling into the middle of the crowded conference scramble, but the winner just might separate itself indefinitely.
Michigan's remaining schedule features four of the bottom six conference teams (Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana), while Michigan State plays three teams it already defeated. The winner of Sunday's rivalry game assumes the role of heavy favorite to win the best conference in college basketball.
Basketball in the state of Michigan could hardly get any better.