February 21, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Keys for Spartans, Wolverines in final push toward postseason

Gary Harris and Nik Stauskas grapple for the ball during the first meeting between the teams this season, Jan. 25 in East Lansing. Michigan prevailed, 80-75. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

The rematch between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 20 Michigan on Sunday will put one team in prime position to win the Big Ten championship.

But that title is not the primary goal for either team.

Michigan is trying to get back to the national championship game after losing to Louisville last season and Michigan State is trying to get over the Sweet 16 hump and return to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

Postseason success — specifically the NCAA Tournament — is the ultimate goal for both the Spartans and the Wolverines. And while Sunday’s battle is certain to be intense, it is almost secondary to what both teams are out to accomplish.

Michigan has won five of the last seven in the series but has lost three of its past five games. Michigan State is starting to get healthy but enters the game winning just four of its last eight games.

Winning a big rivalry game will matter Sunday, but both teams are getting ready for the stretch run. We take a look at the keys for each team as they ready themselves for March.

Keys for Michigan State

Get healthy: Only two Michigan State players have appeared in every game – guard Denzel Valentine and forward Gavin Schilling — and only 10 times have the primary starters played in the same game. Adreian Payne (foot), Branden Dawson (hand), Gary Harris (ankle), Keith Appling (wrist) and Matt Costello (mono) have all missed multiple games and Dawson remains out of the lineup. In addition, guard Travis Trice has also missed multiple games this season forcing the Spartans to use 14 different starting lineups through 28 games. Appling still isn’t quite 100 percent and Dawson will take some time to play his way back into shape, but if the Spartans have any chance of making noise in the postseason, they will need all hands on deck.

Find a rotation: Coach Tom Izzo has talked often about just getting a person back in the lineup is only the first step and getting that player to blend into the lineup is another. Payne took some time to adjust to defensive rotations when he returned and Dawson likely will do the same. And while others have jumped at the chance to play more — Costello, Valentine and Kenny Kaminskiincluded — finding out how it all works with a full roster will be a challenge. The goal for this team is to be at its peak by the time the Big Ten tournament begins, and it will need all four of the final regular-season games to reach that level.

Figuring out Harris: After the first meeting against Michigan, Izzo called Harris the best player in the Big Ten. He had just scored a career-high 27 points and the preseason conference player of the year was doing his best to carry a depleted lineup. Since then, Harris has struggled, scoring in single digits in two of the next four games and watching his shooting percentage plummet. Thursday’s victory over Purdue was a good sign as Harris scored 25 points, went 7-for-11 from the field and 6-for-9 from 3-point range. If it’s a sign he has put the recent slump in the past, it should be the spark the offense Michigan State needs.

Remember Chicago: It seems like a long time ago, but in the second game of the season, Michigan State proved it was one of the best teams in the country by beating Kentucky in the Champions Classic. It was a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 and led to the Spartans getting ranked as the top team in the nation for three weeks. On that night, Michigan State dominated at times, leading by 15 points in the first half and getting outstanding games from its four best players. Appling scored 22, Harris had 20 and Payne scored 15 while Dawson scored eight points, grabbed nine rebounds and had four steals. Injuries forced the Spartans to battle through the next three months of the season, but if any doubt creeps in, remembering their impressive performance in early November could help.

Play to win: That seems simple considering that is the goal of every team entering each game. But when a team is as focused on the postseason as Michigan State is, there can be a tendency to not sweat losing a regular-season game. But while the regular-season Big Ten title might not be the ultimate goal, it is still something that should be a priority. A regular-season title and a run to the Big Ten title game might be needed to secure a No. 1 seed, but too many more losses will hurt that seeding, and the more it drops the tougher the road gets to reach the Final Four in Texas.

Keys for Michigan

Find the real GR3: Glenn Robinson III has had an up-and-down season and is in a slump now, scoring double figures in just two of the past seven games — after having 15 in the first 18 games. Robinson’s average has dropped to 12.8, third on the team behind Nik Stauskas (16.7) and Caris LeVert (13.0). Coach John Beilein has said he’s working with Robinson on some of his shot mechanics and on his confidence in attacking defenses and getting to the rim. He’s been absent from the offense for long stretches, but had an encouraging sign when he hit some mid-range jumpers in the loss Sunday to Wisconsin. Michigan thrives when Robinson scores in double figures — with a 12-3 mark in those games.

Take the gimmes: Even with a loss Sunday to Michigan State, U-M still has an inside track to winning the Big Ten title, with a favorable schedule in their last four games — at Purdue, home vs. Minnesota, at Illinois and against Indiana. The Wolverines are 3-1 against those teams — and hasn’t played last-place Illinois yet this season. MSU has a tougher road — home vs. Illinois and Iowa and at Ohio State. Sunday’s game against MSU isn’t a must-win, but would certainly make U-M the favorite to take the regular-season title. The last four games aren’t “gimme” wins, but the Wolverines will have to focus and not overlook any of them.

Find the D: Defense has been a major bugaboo for Michigan this season, allowing nine teams to score 70-plus points in the conference season. The Wolverines are 4-5 in those games. U-M has played less zone defense than in previous years, partly because Beilein says the players have gotten complete confidence in all of the intricacies. Beilein would rather give up baskets in man-to-man defense than dunks or 3-pointers out of a botched zone set. It’s a pick-your-poison proposition, but it’s clearly the Wolverines’ weakness this season, forcing the offense to outscore — and when the shots aren’t falling, that’s tough to do.

Unlock Nik: Teams are focusing more on shutting down Stauskas, the leading scorer, and forcing other players to try to score in his stead. Where LeVert (16.8 points in last seven games) has picked up some of the slack, Stauskas (12.3 during that span) has lagged a bit. But the offense has to bust out of the doldrums and get more contributions from Robinson, as well as more consistent production from Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin and the big men. Stauskas has improved significantly this season, but can’t be locked out of games offensively so easily.

Don’t hate the paint: Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford have played well at the center position, providing double-double numbers similar to what Mitch McGary would have provided in the frontcourt. Although there aren’t very many plays drawn up for “Morford” in the regular offense, they’ve made their contributions from the pick-and-roll and from grabbing offensive rebounds and getting putbacks for buckets.