It'll be Keith Appling vs. Trey Burke tonight. / KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/DFP
EAST LANSING (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - They'll bring status to the Breslin Center tonight, ranked in the top 10 on the same court for the first time, and they'll bring future pros and teams that can legitimately aspire to win a national title.
And Michigan State and Michigan will bring their grievances. The No. 8 Spartans have watched all season as the No. 4 Wolverines have enjoyed a higher ranking, more national TV games and more attention.
"That definitely has kept us humble as a team," MSU's Branden Dawson said.
But now U-M, after all those years of playing in MSU's shadow, amid its best season in decades, finds the Spartans tied for first in the league standings and creeping into the national picture. The motivational edge in this game is as difficult to assess as the personnel matchups.
"It's gonna be a bloodbath," MSU's Derrick Nix said.
There are consequences beyond the national and rivalry statements that can be made. The winner will be in great shape in an extraordinary Big Ten race. The loser will be in trouble.
If the Spartans win, they'll have a two-game lead on U-M with six to play and keep pace with co-leader Indiana in the loss column.
If the Wolverines win, they'll be tied with MSU knowing that the Spartans and Hoosiers still have to visit Ann Arbor -- and that MSU also has to go to Ohio State, Indiana has to go to MSU, and the Wolverines are done with their road games against top contenders.
From any angle, the magnitude of this game compares with any of the previous 169 meetings.
"I think it's fun to actually feel like the game matters in every way, shape or form -- both locally and nationally," MSU coach Tom Izzo said, "and I'm not sure that's happened since I've been here."
Izzo was thumped early, losing his first five to U-M, then won 18 of 21 before the Wolverines started a 3-for-4 stretch two years ago with a program-changing victory at Breslin Center. Now U-M appears equipped to stay competitive in this series and in general.
Even before that turnaround, the Spartans took this rivalry seriously. Nix recalled goofing around in practice before his first U-M game as a freshman in the 2009-10 season, scolded by veterans Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green for not realizing the intensity required.
"They kind of put me in my place," Nix said, "they were just like, 'This isn't a regular game, Nix, you're playing Michigan.' "
Nix didn't have to remind MSU freshman guard Gary Harris this week.
"There's just been a totally different focus," Harris said of the atmosphere around Breslin since preparation for U-M began Sunday.
For the Wolverines, tonight is "a business trip," said sophomore guard Trey Burke.
And while MSU may long for a return to dominance in the state and U-M may wish it could continue this special season without East Lansing interference, mutual appreciation was offered a day before this meeting.
"Both programs don't like each other, but the respect is there," U-M's Tim Hardaway Jr. said.
"I think our players kind of respect the fact that they're ranked this high," Izzo said. "I don't hear any players say, 'Well, they don't deserve this,' or 'They don't deserve that.' We know Michigan and Indiana deserve to be where they are. But I think we also know Michigan State has earned to deserve where we are."
They'll bring all they have to this one, and someone will earn as significant a victory as this rivalry has produced.
Detroit Free Press