Michigan State Spartans (15-3, 4-1) likely don't need much motivation heading into Tuesday's match with the 20th-ranked Michigan Wolverines (14-4, 4-2).
No, an 81-74 road loss Saturday to the unranked Northwestern Wildcats, which snapped its 15-game win streak, and two losses to the Wolverines last season are enough for Michigan State to put its best foot forward Tuesday at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor—and so is holding its top position in the Big Ten.
Perhaps the Spartans were due for a road loss Saturday. Maybe they were flying too high after posting 15 straight wins, their most since 1998-99, and needed to be knocked down a notch. Either way, with one loss, the Spartans now join the ranks of the blemished, no longer owning the conference's only perfect record.
"A good coach always has to find somebody to blame," Spartans coach Tom Izzo told reporters. "It's usually an assistant. But I don't blame any of my assistants. But I did have a problem with my scout team this week. I did not think they did the job that we needed to do the day that we left (for the Chicago area). And I let them know that after the practice. They're very valuable, too.
"People have trouble understanding how certain players that don't really play can have an impact on a team. And we didn't simulate (Northwestern) as well (as we needed to)."
A three- or four-loss record, like in years past, will probably be good enough to win the league. With Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin having early slips, and Illinois right in the mix, Tuesday's game between the Spartans and Wolverines will be an early indicator of which team wants to hoist a Big Ten banner the most.
A win for the Spartans would create a cushion between their competitors, while another loss for Michigan would lump it with the majority of the pack. Suffering a setback Tuesday would make life difficult for the Tim Hardaway, Jr.-led Wolverines, who have dates with Ohio State and Indiana in the coming weeks, to make it through the conference schedule with four or less losses.
Keys to victory
Draymond Green scored 14 points Saturday against Northwestern, but he didn't lead the offense like he usually does. With just eight field goal attempts, Green was far below his average of 14 per game. While the Spartans' problems weren't solely Green's fault, the senior didn't play up to par—and that was one of the many reasons the Spartans lost their first Big Ten game of the year.
Green has to be, well, Green, on Tuesday. He has to control the boards to the best of his ability. He averages just over 10 rebounds per game, best in the Big Ten, to go along with 15.8 points.
Despite a loss Saturday, Michigan State shot 50 percent from beyond the arc (9-for-18) and committed just 13 turnovers. The Spartans will need another showing like that Tuesday at Crisler. Shooters like Brandon Wood and Keith Appling have to be sharper than they were Saturday if Michigan State wants to snap a two-game losing streak to Michigan.
Tim Hardaway, Jr. is one of the Big Ten's most prolific scorers and is capable of changing games' paces with his athleticism. Averaging about 16 points per game, Hardaway, Jr. has to lead the Wolverines offense if Michigan wants to go 3-0 against MSU in the past three meetings. Freshman phenom Trey Burke averages just over 14 points per outing, and if he gets clicking with Hardaway, Jr., problems could mount for Tom Izzo's Spartans.
Keeping each team's stars out of the game is an obvious key to victory. However, Michigan is more than Hardaway, Jr. and Burke—Zack Novak, Evan Smotrycz and Stu Douglass are dangerous 3-point shooters (each better than 35 percent from 3-point range). When the Wolverines get hot from beyond the arc, they're hard to stop. And if the long ball fails, like it did last week during a 59-41 thrashing of the Wisconsin Badgers when they shot just 26 percent from long range, the Wolverines can always rely on Plan A: Hardaway, Jr. and Burke, like they did in the win over Wisconsin.