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Entering Saturday, the Michigan and Michigan State men’s basketball teams stand on opposite ends of a spectrum. The narratives swirling around each tell starkly different stories.

The Wolverines, heralded as national championship contenders entering the season and ranked as high as fourth in the country, can be characterized as a team fallen from a misplaced grace. Standing at 7-6 on the season, Michigan has lost three of its last four games, each of which have been marred by inconsistent shooting and porous defense.

The 10th-ranked Spartans, by contrast, were unranked entering the season. They weren’t thought of as favorites — or even in the race — for the Big Ten, let alone the NCAA Tournament. And now, at the command of its coach, Tom Izzo, Michigan State sits atop the conference, tied with Illinois at a 4-0 Big Ten record.

The polarity even shows in the way the teams win and lose games; Michigan living and dying by individual linchpins, while Michigan State has a knack for spreading the wealth amongst a slew of players capable of shining  at any moment. 

“Very deep group,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said of the Spartans Friday. “And they’ve got a deep roster, and they’re loaded at the frontcourt with a rotation of four to five big guys. … But you also have to add the guy who’s been playing extremely well, and that’s Gabe Brown. He’s been the head of the snake.”

And while Brown might be the head of the snake, it can, at times, feel like the Spartans are a hydra. Shut down Brown, and you get gashed by freshman guard Max Christie or forward Malik Hall. Overcommit to the perimeter, and center Marcus Bingham Jr. can drop double digits on your center while protecting the rim on the other end of the floor. 

For the Wolverines, it feels as if their success rides on three players: fifth-year guard Eli Brooks, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson and freshman forward Caleb Houstan. All three have to be on their game, or Michigan falters. Without Dickinson dominating down low, Brooks shining on the perimeter or Houstan knocking down outside shots, the Wolverines just haven’t been able to win games.

So when these seemingly opposite teams clash on Saturday afternoon, why shouldn’t everyone just expect what the narrative dictates? 

For lack of a better explanation — it’s a rivalry.

“Anybody that thinks this isn’t a good Michigan team is crazy,” Izzo told reporters on Thursday.

“They’re one of the most talented teams, not only in the Big Ten, but in the country,” Izzo added. “Rivalries, as they say, throw out the (records). Rivalries in basketball where one team gets hot, it changes everything.”

It’s one that Howard and Michigan don’t take lightly. From top to bottom, the Wolverines understand what this game means. 

“We compete against everyone no matter if it’s an in-state rivalry or not,” Howard said. “But, to be an in-state rivalry, a team that’s down the road, (the freshmen) understand this is very important.”

It’s the type of game, in Ann Arbor, that Michigan could just come out and resemble the team  they were supposed to all season. And firing on all cylinders, the Wolverines would be a tough team to beat for anyone in the country. Or, Michigan State could keep its game rolling, and everyone could witness the tires fall completely off of this Michigan team.

It comes down to whether or not the rivalry is enough for the Wolverines to shed the narratives surrounding them and this game. 

“We just got to be ready to bring our lunch pail,” Howard said. “Lunch pail and hard hats. And let’s go to work. Mano a mano”