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Michigan at Michigan State Preview: Stakes remain high as rivals reunite

A win Saturday would be a huge step in the right direction.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With 85 percent of the conference schedule remaining, it is a little early to be popping champagne, but it is remarkable that the Michigan Wolverines sit atop the Big Ten at 3-0 after their non-conference performance. This team still has a long ways to go, but a fourth-straight Big Ten win would be significant.

That is because Saturday takes the Wolverines up to East Lansing, a place they have not won since the 2017-18 season. Three of the four losses since then came against ranked Michigan State Spartans squads, but that is not the case this weekend, as both teams are sitting in the 40s per Kenpom and the 50s per Torvik.

Despite both teams’ early struggles, this is still a huge matchup. The Spartans are the ones currently on the right side of the bubble, but a road rivalry win to keep Michigan undefeated in conference play would be a big statement and the perfect cap to this seven-day stretch.

Michigan Wolverines (9-5, 3-0) at Michigan State Spartans (10-4, 2-1)

Date & Time: Saturday, Jan. 7, 2:30 p.m.
Location: Breslin Center, East Lansing, MI
TV/Streaming: FOX
Big Ten Standings: MICH t-1st, MSU t-5th

Embrace the environment

State has looked modest defensively in its three conference games, but does have the best three-point defense in the league, compared to a two-point rate that nears 50 percent. This fits the profile for the Wolverines, where threes have been hard to come by, while the team has found success working out of the post.

That does not mean Michigan shooters should be afraid here, but this is another time for the offense to show some (controlled) aggression, challenging the defense and getting to the rim and not settling for contested jumpers. While free throws have been a huge problem this year, the Spartans do foul a ton, so might as well oblige them in the paint.

The Wolverines showed a lot of composure when Penn State had a couple long runs, and obviously it will be a hostile scene in East Lansing. There very well may be a few droughts again, but this is not the time to panic. State does not have anything close to an elite defense, so Michigan just needs to hang tight and keep attacking.

If there is one player who is absolutely going to show up, it will be Hunter Dickinson, who is the engine that powers this team and the villain that riles up the rest of the conference. Dickinson used his personal vendetta to fuel him to a monster performance against Maryland, and he has not be shy against the Spartans throughout his career.

Stay focused

The offensive end has gone a bit better for the Spartans, though no specific stat really stand out. They protect the ball well but never draw fouls, and these are areas that Michigan traditionally stays away from anyway, so neither turnovers nor free throws should be a big factor on this end of the floor.

State does not have great shooting numbers this season, and this will be a good opportunity for the Michigan defense to make a statement. On the year, the Spartans are in the 200s in two-point percentage and take very few threes (despite hitting them at a good clip). Dickinson will have the advantage down low and must help his teammates take care of the defensive glass because there are going to be plenty of rebound opportunities.

This feels like a big opportunity for the Wolverines to stay hot and earn a key victory to keep the momentum going. Winning a rivalry game on the road is never easy, but this State team is not great and is liable to take plenty of bad shots if the defense is unwilling to give up anything else. If Michigan can keep its focus in a tough environment, a win is well within reach on Saturday.