The last time No. 11 Michigan State won an NCAA Tournament: 2000. The last time Michigan played in an NCAA Tournament: 1998. And the Spartans have taken 12 of the last 13 games from the Wolverines – the past two by a combined 26 points.

Jessica Boullion
Junior guard Dion Harris and his fellow Wolverines hope to upset Michigan State tonight at Crisler Arena. (RYAN WEINER/Daily)

On paper, not much of a rivalry.

But with a total of 21 players from the state of Michigan involved this year’s games, it’s in no danger of extinction.

“Any time you get a chance to play against a rival like this and participate in the game is a great feeling,” said senior Sherrod Harrell, a Kalamazoo native whose Wolverines take on the Spartans at 8 p.m. tonight in Crisler Arena.

Michigan coach Tommy Amaker said he’ll approach this game like any other, although he admits many of his players probably won’t. But, he’ll be happy to know that at least one of his non-Michiganders is taking a similar mindset into the game.

“I will admit it’s big for the people of Ann Arbor, the people of East Lansing and the people of the state of Michigan,” said Texas native Daniel Horton, who scored a team-high 17 points in the Wolverines’ last victory over the Spartans, a 60-58 triumph his freshman year. “I realize that they’re one of the better teams in this conference, and they’re a team that we have to go through to win the Big Ten Championship. But as far as an intrastate rivalry and all that type of stuff, it’s not really important in my mind.”

Teammate Graham Brown isn’t buying Horton’s line.

“No matter what Daniel says, I think he does have a hatred for them. Don’t let him fool you,” Brown said. “You know he has something inside, he knows how big of a rivalry it is.”

Even without bragging rights on the line, Michigan has plenty to worry about. The result makes the difference between a 4-2 and a 3-3 Big Ten record, a distinction that is especially important with a game against No. 23 Wisconsin looming on Saturday. The Wolverines – ranked 26th in the coaches’ poll and 32nd in the Associated Press poll – lie on the cusp of making the top 25 for the first time since 1998. But getting over the hump certainly won’t be easy.

For starters, it appears very likely that the Wolverines will be without wing Lester Abram, who suffered a severe ankle sprain during last Saturday’s win over Minnesota. Although Amaker said Abram is listed as day-to-day, neither his somber tone nor shrug-his-shoulders response seemed to suggest optimism about a return tonight.

“Not practicing (Monday) probably leads us to believe it might be a stretch,” Amaker said.

Abram’s injury couldn’t come at a worse time. The Spartans sport one of the best backcourts in the nations with guards Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown averaging a combined 38 points per game. Point guard Drew Neitzel is no slouch either, adding eight points and five assists per game.

In addition, there’s another little problem that might plague the Wolverines in the post – the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Paul Davis. Given the recent struggles of the Wolverines’ inside players, they’re likely to have some difficulty stopping the center, who puts up more than 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. During the last two games, Michigan big men Courtney Sims and Graham Brown have totaled just 11 points – and both were held scoreless once.

“(Davis) is a great player, so we’re just going to have to limit his touches and try to do whatever we can to stop him,” Brown said.

Michigan knows it needs a complete game from its players, inside and out, if it wants to upset its neighbors tonight.

“I think this season, we’ve been playing like, . me and Daniel play well together, and then Courtney hasn’t played well,” guard Dion Harris said. “(When Horton) and Courtney play well, I haven’t played well. So, I think it will be very important for us to bring it all together on Wednesday, because I think the Michigan State players really know how to play as unit.”

Michigan State at Michigan
Time: 8 p.m.
Crisler Arena

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