Michigan heads to East Lansing on Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m., FOX) for the most significant game of its young season.
The Spartans and Wolverines enter the matchup ranked two spots apart on KenPom at 43rd and 45th, somewhere in the murky ground where no one is sure whether they are a contender, pretender, bubble team, or worse. That tenuous spot where a three-game winning streak can convince a fanbase that their team is ready to contend, but there’s no floor if a couple of losses accumulate.
The Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has supplied plenty of marquee showdowns over the last decade, but there’s been a notable decline in quality over the last few meetings. The matchup in Ann Arbor last year featured two teams ranked in the 30s; this year, both programs are even worse. You have to go back to January 2017 to find a meeting where at least one of the two programs wasn’t ranked in the KenPom top 30 for a rivalry meeting.
Saturday’s winner will leave the Breslin Center confident in where their season is going. The loser will realize their flaws are more troubling than they wanted to believe.
Michigan State is one of the harder teams to assess in the country. The Spartans lost a close game on a boat against Gonzaga and then beat Kentucky in two overtimes before knocking off Villanova at home. Since then, they lost to Alabama, Notre Dame and Northwestern and haven’t exactly sparkled.
They were missing two key rotation players — Malik Hall and Jaden Akins — for extended periods of time and now have five straight wins and a healthier roster. As is the case with most teams in early January, it is anyone’s guess whether the Spartans have solved some of their issues and are ready to make a run in the Big Ten or if a more favorable stretch of schedule is masquerading as genuine improvement.
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