Spartans come to town with sole possession of first in Big Ten on the line

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By Daniel Feldman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 20, 2014

February 12, 2013.

That was the last time the Michigan men’s basketball team lost back-to-back games. Since that fateful day, when the Spartans clobbered the Wolverines, 75-52, Michigan has avoided the same fate nine times.

If the 20th-ranked Wolverines plan to push that streak to 10, it’ll come against that same Michigan State team Sunday.

After playing six games in the span of 17 days starting Jan. 30, Michigan is coming off its longest break since playing every Saturday with no weekday games from the seventh to the 28th of December. And following a tough loss this past Sunday to Wisconsin, the respite was welcomed.

“It’s just time to rest,” said redshirt junior forward Jon Horford on Sunday, “especially for the high-minute guys. We can focus on the next opponent and collect ourselves and just get ready for a push.”

Added Michigan coach John Beilein: “When you come out of (playing games so frequently) we try to get some rest. But it is good for us to be able to rest a little bit, be able to get back in the gym and practice.”

After it appeared that Michigan would fall a game behind Michigan State in the Big Ten standings following its game Sunday, Michigan ultimately remained in a first-place tie after No. 13 Michigan State (11-3 Big Ten, 22-5 overall) fell to Nebraska at home.

The game marked the first game back for Spartan shooting guard Keith Appling, who had missed the previous four games due to a lingering wrist injury. Despite the four-game absence to heal the injury, Appling was a non-factor in the loss. Playing 19 minutes, the senior attempted just two shots and recorded two points as Michigan State shot a putrid 34 percent from the field.

After the game, Spartan coach Tom Izzo said he was considering “shutting him down” for the remainder of the regular season. However, on Thursday against Purdue, Appling was on the court, albeit for 25 minutes.

Though it appears Appling will be available in some capacity Sunday as well, what is yet to be determined is the status of forward Branden Dawson. After missing his eighth straight game against Purdue, speculation remains that the junior will be available against Michigan, even in just a limited role.

But if that Spartan duo isn’t at 100 percent come Sunday, Michigan State will be a lot healthier than the last time the Wolverines (10-3, 18-7) faced them. That time around, forward Adreian Payne was out for his fifth of seven games due to a sprained foot. Since returning, the senior has averaged 18 points and 6.8 rebounds.

With the Spartans’ health improving, having a week off to prepare for the interior battle to come could prove pivotal. Especially after the play of Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky, who had 25 points and 11 rebounds on Sunday.

And with solo possession of first place in the Big Ten and a potential season sweep on the line for Michigan, the in-state rivalry means even more than usual with the regular season approaching its end.

“We’re aware of the standings, but we’re not going to put a lot of emphasis on it,” said sophomore guard Nik Stauskas on Sunday. “We’re just going to take it one game at a time and next up we have Michigan State, and obviously they’re our rival so we’re going to be looking forward to that one.”