For most of the season, Michigan and Michigan State battled for the Big Ten championship.
Now, with only three games to play, they are staggering toward the finish line.
The Spartans come into the Crisler Center having lost their last two games — a heartbreaking home loss to Indiana followed by a disappointing defeat in Columbus.
Michigan came into February with a 20-1 record and proceeded to go 3-4. The last loss, an inexplicable defeat by hapless Penn State, cost them control of their own destiny in the conference race.
However, with Indiana losing to Minnesota on Tuesday, both teams still have visions of a championship banner at the same time that they are trying to stave off utter collapse. It has been that kind of season in the Big Ten.
For Michigan State, the path is simple to find but extremely hard to follow. They need to beat Michigan on Sunday, finish off the regular season with home wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, and hope that the Wolverines can knock off the Hoosiers in the season finale.
If it will be tough for the Spartans to count on help from Michigan, things aren’t any better for the Wolverines. They need wins over Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana, and then require both Michigan State to beat Wisconsin and Ohio State to take out the Hoosiers. If all that happened, the most likely scenario would be a five-way tie for the Big Ten title between the Wolverines, Spartans, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Technically, that means Michigan has slightly more to play for Sunday, but in reality, both teams desperately need a victory. Michigan State can’t afford a third straight loss, especially with Wisconsin coming next, and the young, fragile Wolverines need something to erase the taste of their meltdown in Happy Valley.
Michigan State should have an edge coming into the game, given their destruction of the Wolverines last month in East Lansing, but they’ve lost a lot of that momentum in the last two games.
For the Spartans, the key will be to get Keith Appling out of his slump. Appling had terrible games on both ends of the floor in the losses to Indiana and Ohio State, and now faces Player of the Year candidate Trey Burke. If Burke is able to dominate his matchup with Appling, Michigan State has little chance of winning the game.
For Michigan, they need some life from their freshmen. Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas both appear to have slammed head-first into the freshman wall, while Mitch McGary has boundless energy while making too many mistakes with the ball.
Another important matchup will be in the post. Jordan Morgan is finally getting closer to 100 percent after an ankle injury, and Jon Horford has joined McGary to give Michigan three usable post players. That wasn’t the case when the teams played in East Lansing – Morgan and Horford only played limited minutes off the bench, allowing Michigan State to dominate on the glass at both ends of the floor.
Tim Hardaway Jr. will also need a much better performance that he had at the Breslin Center, where he was badly outplayed by freshman Gary Harris. Hardaway has never played well in East Lansing, but he also struggled defensively against Penn State, and the Wolverines can’t afford for that to happen again on Sunday.
March is a special month in college basketball, because no matter what you’ve done from November through February, people will remember what happened in the season’s final month. Sunday’s winner will take an important step toward a memorable finish. The loser will have to work hard to avoid an ending that erases every good thing they’ve done this year.