It has been 681 days since the Michigan State men’s basketball team has beaten Michigan.

Last season, the Wolverines flipped the in-state rivalry on its head and swept the Spartans for the first time in over a decade. During the first game, at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, four shirtless fans stood on the baseline, their chests painted with the number of days it had been since a Michigan men’s basketball or football team had beaten Michigan State — 1,181.

They left the game with their heads hanging after their team fell at home, 61-57.

On Tuesday night, the two teams will open the 2012 series at the Crisler Center, both having much to prove. Michigan State (4-1 Big Ten, 15-3 overall) is looking to regain control of the rivalry, and Michigan (4-2, 14-4) wants to show that last year’s performances were not flukes.

But the Wolverines are a bit hesitant to declare themselves the better program after last season’s heroics. After all, it was a down year for the Spartans, who weren’t ranked at season’s end.

“We still got a ways to go before we get our program to the level where they’ve been at,” said senior guard and co-captain Stu Douglass. “They’ve gotten to Final Fours, and they’ve been very good the past 10 to 15 years. So we know we’ve got a ways to go, and we respect them a lot, but we can’t dwell on sweeping them last year and thinking it was the greatest thing ever.

“I want to go out and sweep them again this year and end my career on a good note with the rivalry.”

This season’s pair of contests could be a bit more telling in terms of the balance of power in the state of Michigan. Both squads are ranked — Michigan at No. 20 and Michigan State at No. 9 — and they’re neck-and-neck in the conference standings.

There are no more excuses this year.

“It makes it a bigger rivalry when both teams are doing well,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo in a teleconference on Monday. “Any time you’ve got a rivalry with two ranked teams, that just stokes the fire even more. We’re not Duke-North Carolina yet, but that’s what everybody hopes it will be. When both teams are ranked year after year and playing each other, that’s what it turns into.

“I don’t like anything about Michigan, and they don’t like anything about us, and that’s the way it should be.”

Apart from the rivalry, the game is crucial for the two teams which are both looking to bounce back from upset losses last weekend.

On Saturday, Michigan lost badly to Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, 75-59. The Wolverines shot at a subpar 38.5-percent clip, and sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was 0-for-8 from 3-point range. And on the same day, Northwestern’s John Shurna and Drew Crawford combined for 42 points to down Michigan State in Evanston, 81-74.

In the crazy world of Big Ten hoops, where no win comes easy and upsets are commonplace, dropping two games in a row is something to avoid at all costs. But one loss, at times, could be beneficial.

“It’s essential to success,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “I think you see that you have to have adversity to grow. … You don’t grow as much in victory as you do in defeat. There’s a lot of growth to be had in our guys — we’re still very young. It’s very important, and we embrace it, frankly. We don’t want to lose, but we embrace it.”

That said, losing to the Spartans at home on Tuesday would be particularly discouraging as the Wolverines enter a three-game road stint starting Saturday at Arkansas.

In order to top Michigan State, Beilein’s squad will need to limit the production of senior forward Draymond Green and sophomore point guard Keith Appling, the Spartans’ two leading scorers. But more importantly, the Wolverines will need to correct their mistakes from the recent loss to the Hawkeyes.

“We were a step slow with so many things in the Iowa game, both offensively and defensively,” Beilein said. “It actually picked up later in the game, where we drove the ball better, we did a lot of things. I don’t know if it’s fatigue, if it’s focus, if it’s overcoaching, undercoaching. I have no idea.”

With the Spartans looming, Beilein must find the answer soon.

Notes: Beilein mentioned on Monday that sophomore center Jon Horford is nearing a return.

He has been sitting on the bench with a foot injury since nonconference play. Typically, Horford backs up redshirt sophomore Jordan Morgan at center, and his role has been filled by redshirt sophomore Blake McLimans and sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz.

“He’s jump shooting now, he’s doing a couple of things,” Beilein said. “(He’s) not going to play tomorrow. He stayed home this weekend so he could just do therapy. And then Thursday, Friday we’re going to go hard with him to see how he looks.”

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