On Jan. 25, 2011, Tom Izzo suspended Korie Lucious for the remainder of the season. That came after Chris Allen had already been booted off the team before the season. Two days later, the Spartans fell at home to Michigan for the first time 14 years. I covered that team for The State News. The headline I went with was "Rock Bottom Blues."
On Saturday, MSU and Michigan meet with both at least 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time ever. BTN's Dave Revsine says it's the first-EVER game between two Big Ten teams at least 6-0. It comes two days after Branden Dawson broke his hand in frustration, which comes after Adreian Payne has missed the past four games with a foot issue. His chances of playing on Saturday are "slim to none." His comments on Saturday indicate that he won't play.
The Spartans are 18-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country. Dawson has been MSU's best rebounder and was coming off a great game against Indiana.
Dawson wants more. The Spartans want more.
As in 2011, the goal in 2014 has been national championship or bust. In 2011, they busted. Those Spartans were 12-8 after falling to the Wolverines and would scratch their way into tournament. The 2014 version has been able overcome adversity to get out to a record start.
The season isn't about Saturday, but pride is.
A year ago, Michigan came into East Lansing ranked No. 4. The first-ever top-10 matchup in the rivalry. The Wolverines lost by 23, but it was 30 before the walk-ons came in. The next chapter saw the Wolverines steal (pun intended) a victory in Ann Arbor and go on to reach the national championship game.
This is finally a rivalry with national attention, with each game representing a milestone. This is the fifth straight game between the two with both ranked. Before that, they had met as ranked teams a total of six times. Both teams have goals bigger than a rivalry win, but that makes it even bigger.
If the Spartans lose on Saturday, no one will remember it as "the injury game." Zack Novak doesn't care that Lucious and Allen didn't play in 2011. But if the Spartans win (in 1979 throwbacks), it will be remembered by MSU fans, especially if it leads to those bigger goals.
Michigan comes into Saturday at 14-4 and winners of eight in a row. The last loss was against No. 1 Arizona. The last two wins have been against No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 10 Iowa. The Wolverines are 6-0 and playing their best basketball of the year coming into this one. MSU is reeling about as much as you can for a team that is 7-0 in conference play.
John Beilein has to be the frontrunner for Big Ten Coach of the Year. He lost two NBA players in the offseason, including the national player of the year, and he lost another NBA draft pick in Mitch McGary early in the season. McGary had back surgery and may never again suit up for the Wolverines.
But Michigan hasn't missed a step. The Wolverines are No. 3 nationally in adjO, at 120.3 — the exact same number as a year ago. They're hitting 38.2 percent of their three-pointers and 55.5 percent of their two-pointers, both higher than a year ago (which, admittedly, included a full Big Ten and NCAA Tournament slate).
U-M only turns the ball over on 14.1 percent of possessions (No. 8), but they don't get to the free-throw line (34.6 FTR, No. 305).
Nik Stauskas wasn't on the Wooden top 25, but he's playing like one of the best players in the country, averaging 18.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He's hitting 44 percent of his 3s and 53 percent of his 2s. He's #NotJustAShooter, and is quite good in the point guard role. He knows when to pull up, when to drive to the hoop and when to drive and dish. At 6-for-6, he's a matchup nightmare. Suddenly, he's a real possibility to leave early for the NBA.
Like McGary, Glenn Robinson III spurned the NBA last offseason to return. Robinson was more of a prospect because of his potential, which is has been living up to recently for the Wolverines, averaging 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game and hitting more than 51 percent of his shots.
Elsewhere on the roster, Caris Levert is averaging 11.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Like Stauskas and Robinson, he's 6-foot-6 and long. Inside, the combination of Jordan Morgan (5.1 points, 3.7 rebounds) and Jon Horford (5.0 points, 5.1 rebounds) have been strong of late in place of each other. Freshman Zak Irvin, a high school teammate of Gary Harris, is a shooter, averaging 6.9 points off the bench and hitting 40 percent of his 3s. There's also diminutive guards Spike Albrecht (3.9 points, 2.6 assists) and Derrick Walton Jr. (7.7 points, 2.7 assists).
Beilein's Michigan teams utilize a ton of high ball screens, which MSU has defended excellent in the past two years. But with Derrick Nix gone and Payne unlikely to play, that falls on the likes of Matt Costello, Alex Gauna, Kenny Kaminski and Gavin Schilling, none of whom have played much against the Wolverines. This will be the biggest key to the MSU defense. It's better to give up a 2 than a 3, but you don't want to be allowing layups and dunks, which Michigan can get a lot of. MSU tends to switch on the perimeter, so it's hard to point out specific matchups.
Defensively, Michigan is average, ranked No. 45 in adjD. They've been particularly weak in the transition game, but in their most recent game, they held Iowa in check. U-M is No. 305 in adjusted tempo. Still, it would be best for MSU to try to run as much as possible, given recent halfcourt issues without Payne, and especially now without Dawson.
The Wolverines are No. 3 in the nation in preventing opponents from getting to the free-throw line, and they're average in forcing turnovers.
On the glass, Michigan is No. 242 in getting offensive rebounds, but No. 15 in allowing them. MSU has already been an average offensive rebounding team, worse than most Izzo teams, and MSU will be without Dawson, who leads the team with an OR% of 12.6, and likely without Payne, who is at 6.5 percent. Gary Harris is next on MSU with an OR% of just 4.8. In recent years, MSU's domination on the glass has been the equalizer against U-M shooting, but it's hard to see a situation in which MSU has that card this time. MSU should be OK on the defensive end, especially with the way Denzel Valentine has been rebounding.
MSU has been a perimeter-oriented team all season, and that will be even more so with the frontcourt out. Keith Appling and Harris will have to lead the charge. No better time for a senior moment up to this point in the season.
KenPom predicts a 71-66 MSU win, giving the Spartans a 68 percent chance of winning, but that doesn't account for the losses of Dawson and Payne.
Is Payne really going to miss his final home game against the biggest rival? Is it worth resting Payne? I believe Izzo when he says there's a slim to none chance that Payne plays. If Payne tells Izzo he's playing, does the coach tell him no? Gun to my head, I think Payne plays, but I obviously wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't.
If Payne plays (even rusty), I'm picking MSU. If he doesn't, I'm picking Michigan.
This state has two top basketball programs, and Saturday is another opportunity to showcase it.