Two weeks ago, this was shaping up to be a dream season for Michigan.
They were the No. 1 team in the country with a gaudy 20-1 record, and fans were starting to wonder just how many banners the Wolverines would be raising in the brightly renovated Crisler Center.
It has only taken three games for all of that to change. Michigan lost at Indiana, barely survived against Ohio State in overtime, then had a seemingly certain victory stolen by Ben Brust’s 45-foot miracle at Wisconsin.
Now they face a game that they have to win if they want a realistic chance of a Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And they have to win it at the Breslin Center.
On Tuesday, it will be No. 8 Michigan State who comes into the game atop the Big Ten standings and having won nine of their last 10 games. After a season that started with a bad loss to Connecticut in Germany, the Spartans have had to watch the Wolverines get all the national attention, while they fought to get noticed at all.
A loss to Miami looks a lot better in retrospect — the Hurricanes are 10-0 in the ACC, including blowout wins over Duke and North Carolina — but the Spartans started league play with a disappointing defeat at Minnesota.
Since then, though, Michigan State has been one of the best teams in the country. They did lose at Indiana, but they got the win in Madison that the Wolverines couldn’t get, and they’ve worked themselves to No. 8 in the country.
Now they host the No. 4 Wolverines — the first time in the 170-game series that both teams are ranked in the Top 10. A victory would keep Michigan State in first place — they are currently tied with Indiana — and drop the Wolverines two games behind with six conference games to play.
That would mean the Wolverines would have to go 6-0, including beating Michigan State and Indiana at Crisler, and still need some help to get another Big Ten banner.
If the Wolverines win, though, it would be the Spartans who have to win at Crisler, and probably need a home victory over the Hoosiers as well.
To get a victory, Michigan needs a return to form from freshmen Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. The Hoosiers, Buckeyes and Badgers have all been able to keep the pair quiet by forcing Michigan into a stagnant perimeter offense. Michigan hasn’t been able to run, which takes away Robinson’s fast-break finishes, and Trey Burke hasn’t been able to get to the rim, which takes away the drive-and-dish opportunities for Stauskas’s 3-point shots.
Michigan has also struggled inside while Jordan Morgan has been limited by a sprained ankle. Mitch McGary has done enough to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Week on Monday, but Jon Horford hasn’t been able to pick up enough of the load. That will be a problem against Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix.
On paper, this is a perfect situation for the Spartans. No coach is better than Tom Izzo at designing a defensive game play, and Michigan State has the added advantages of coming in as the hotter team, and with the game at the Breslin Center with Spartan legend Magic Johnson on the broadcast team.
The question is health. The Spartans have sustained a seemingly endless series of injuries, and still haven’t gotten everyone back. Travis Trice isn’t expected to play, Gary Harris isn’t 100 percent, and point guard Keith Appling recently suffered an excruciating shoulder dislocation. The shoulder went back in and hasn’t caused much trouble, but any distraction will be problematic with Appling having to guard Burke.
Given the Big Ten season thus far, it seems inevitable that the game will come down to the final moments, and the result will probably hinge on one matchup — Izzo’s defensive scheme against Burke’s offensive gifts. If Burke can get Robinson and Stauskas involved, the Wolverines will get their season-saving victory.
If not, though, it could be a night to remember in East Lansing.