GAME PREVIEW - In the debate of what makes a rivalry a good one, we present you with the 2012-13 version of Michigan State vs. Michigan.
Two programs that have not only battled to an all-time 95-74 U-M advantage over the first 169 meetings but two programs that will carry a Duke-North Carolina rivalry feel into Tuesday night's 170th meeting when the No. 8 Spartans (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten) host the No. 4/5 Wolverines (21-3, 8-3) at 9 p.m. (ESPN) at Breslin Center.
While MSU had surged ahead in the dominance category of late, capturing 19 of the last 25 meetings, the Wolverines have served recent notice winning three of the last four matchups.
So when the two programs make series history by playing against each other for the first time as Top 10 teams, not to mention, as being part of the first game this season that will pit two 20-win teams against one another, the stakes may be as high as they've ever been in this series.
The Spartans, who were not projected as preseason challengers to the Big Ten title, top the conference standings along with preseason conference favorite Indiana. The Wolverines, who are coming off a tough-to-swallow overtime loss at Wisconsin, are tied with the Badgers, just one game back.
"I thought the whole year, Michigan State has been way underrated,'' said 6th-year U-M coach John Beilein said. "Tom (Izzo) has done a tremendous job and they're playing as good a basketball as anywhere in the country.
"You can't go up there and play an average game. You have to have things happen and they have to play not there best game but I think we've shown this year that we're capable of playing at a very high level against some very good teams.''
Those are circumstances that only further fuel the excitement, urgency and relevance of a rivalry that had seen MSU surge to a 9-2 advantage from 2004 to 2010 only to see U-M swing the pendulum back to Ann Arbor with three victories in the last four meetings.
"Who wouldn't rather dominate a 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,'' MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "I don't think there's any question that in my estimation, this is their best team in a lot of years. They are solid in just about every position and it should make for a heck of a game.''
For Izzo, who is 19-11 all-time against U-M, Beilein - despite being just 3-5 against the Spartans - has crafted a successful style of perimeter-oriented offense led by big versatile guards that has made the Wolverines a difficult matchup.
Despite depending on the athleticism and versatility of big guards like 6-foot-6 junior Tim Hardaway Jr. and 6-6 freshman Nik Stauskas, the head of the snake to the Wolverines success has been their shortest performer, 6-foot sophomore guard Trey Burke.
Burke heads a potent U-M offense - that he leads in both points (18.2) and assists (7.1) - that ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring offense (77.0), field-goal percentage (.498) and 3-point field-goal percentage (.407).
"I think Burke is a different player than he was last year,'' Izzo said. "Last year I think it was about him getting shots, this year I think it is about him getting everyone else shots. He has done a phenomenal job of taking shots when he needs them, but definitely getting other people involved.''
Additionally, despite playing an uptempo style, the Wolverines have proven to be efficient offensively, leading the conference in both turnover margin at plus-3 and assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.6.
This, despite having three shooters in Burke, Hardaway Jr. and Stauskas, who have all hit 46 or more 3-pointers this season, while shooting nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Stauskas, a Canadian import, who has become U-M's offensive X-factor, leads the air assault with 59 treys, while Hardaway Jr. and Burke have added 49 and 46, respectively.
As a result, the Wolverines enter Tuesday with four players who average 11 or more points a game.
But don't think the Wolverines are all show-and-go beyond the perimeter.
They have a small band of post players that have given opponents just enough trouble to ensure that the Wolverines are not overly matched down low and one dimensional.
Led by 6-10 reserve freshman forward Mitch McGary's team-leading 6.1 rebounds a game, the Wolverines are competitive enough in the paint, especially when you add in the contributions of 6-6 freshman forward Glenn Robinson III and 6-10 redhsirt sophomore Jon Horford.
This trio has combined to do an especially nice job since an ankle injury has slowed redshirt junior forward Jordan Morgan, putting his status to play on Tuesday in jeopardy. The Wolverines are also expecting to try and get some qualities minutes in the post from reserve redshirt freshman forward Max Bielfeldt.
McGary enters the game as the conference's reigning freshman of the week after averaging 13 points, seven rebounds and 3.5 steals a contest in games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. It's the second time this season U-M's freshman power forward has earned that honor, making him probably the team's best 'Sixth Man.'
While there will be some obvious differences in the way both teams want to execute their offenses, defense and rebounding, like it is in most Big Ten games will probably decide the outcome.
Of course, turnovers could play a key factor for either both teams- who are just about even in every meaningful stat category entering Tuesday's game.
Eventhough though are taking care of the ball pretty well in conference play, with MSU committing just 11.5 turnovers per game in Big Ten play, and U-M being guilty of just 8.9 miscues a game.
While both teams have no problem pushing the ball up court offensively when given the opportunity, how well both teams defend in the half-court set will affect the outcome.
MSU must prevent the Wolverines from running sets for uncontested 3's off screens, while U-M must stop the Spartans from bullying them in the post.
"Much of their game is developed around post play so you can not be soft in the post and expect to guard them,'' Beilein said.
Most of that worry is attributed to the play of senior center Derrick Nix, junior forward Adreian Payne and sophomore wing Branden Dawson.
MSU's trio enters the game with a combined 29.6 points and 19.7 rebounds a game, as opposed to U-M's inside trio of McGary, Robinson and Horford, who combine for 20.3 points and 14.2 rebounds a contest.
Still Izzo believes U-M will hold its own in the paint.
"It's not like Payne and Robinson are that much different in size. McGary and Morgan are, I mean Nix is bigger in some ways but it's not enormous,'' Izzo said. "The only real true mismatch as far as in size and strength would be Dawson and Stauskas. I think height-wise they're similar but strength-wise maybe not. So I don't know if that's as big a deal, I mean I hope it is. I just don't see it as one.''
One area that most feel will weight heavily on the outcome will be the individual performances of Burke and MSU's leading scorer, junior guard Keith Appling.
Appling enters the game averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game but first half foul trouble has cost him upwards of six minutes a half in recent games. That is a situation MSU can not afford on Tuesday, especially with the likelihood that sophomore guard Travis Trice will miss his third-straight game with concussion-like symptoms because that only leaves freshman guard Denzel Valentine as the Spartans strongest option off the bench to play the point.
And while there's a chance Valentine, who has shown marked improvement recently in his all-around play can provide some quality minutes running the offense, it's not a gamble MSU wants to take in such a pivotal conference showdown.
Additionally, if Appling has to spend any extended amount of time on the bench because of foul troubles, that leaves freshman guard Gary Harris, who's second on the team in scoring at 12.7 points a game, as the Spartans only reliable shooter from the arc in a game where MSU is going to have to make some significant 3-point baskets in order to win.
"In a game like this with the emotions, I think that will be part of the game, who gets in foul trouble and who doesn't, who gets into who's bench and who doesn't,'' Izzo said. "I think that is going to be a big key to this game. Both teams want to keep their point guards on the floor a lot. And so, foul situations will be a key.
"The game is gonna come down to, really, keeping players on the floor.''
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