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2018 Big Ten Tournament Preview: #1 Michigan State Spartans vs. #5 Michigan Wolverines

Does it get much better than rivalry hoops in the Big Apple?

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Rivalry hoops in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament in the Big Apple — it doesn’t get much better than this.

Today will mark only the second time in the great rivalry of Michigan-Michigan State that these two programs will meet in the Big Ten Tournament, and it should be just as exciting as the first matchup back in 2014. Both the Spartans and Wolverines advanced on Friday to setup a rivalry matchup on Saturday as the first semifinal game of the day — tip is at 2 p.m. and the game can be seen on CBS.

Those who follow Big Ten basketball, and these two teams especially, know how big of a deal this game will be. The conference schedule only had these two programs facing off in the regular season once, and to most people’s surprise the Wolverines went into the Breslin Center and walked away with a convincing victory. That’s the last time the Spartans lost and revenge will certainly serve as extra motivation for Michigan State in this matchup.

Will the Spartans cash in on that revenge or will the Wolverines flex on their rivals again? We’ll know that by roughly 4 p.m. today, but before then let’s take a look at a few keys in this matchup.

1. Both teams are hot, but who’s hotter?

Both Michigan and Michigan State carry very impressive winning streaks into this semifinal matchup, and it’s fair to say these are the two hottest teams in the league and possibly in the country.

The Spartans haven’t lost since that 10-point defeat at the hands of the Wolverines on Jan. 13, reeling off 13 straight victories to lock up sole possession of the Big Ten regular season championship crown. Winning 13 straight games is never easy, and the Spartans have had an especially difficult time reaching that point even though it hasn’t been the toughest competition. Michigan State found themselves trailing in the second half in seven of those games — that includes yesterday’s quarterfinals matchup with Wisconsin — and the a few of the other games were closer than they ought to be too.

For Michigan it has been easier going lately, with the Wolverines dominating most of their recent opponents. The Wolverines enter this tilt on a seven-game winning streak, and with wins in nine of their last 10 games. Of those 10 games, Michigan has won by double-digits in six tilts, including an impressive 19-point victory over Nebraska in the quarterfinals yesterday. Michigan is playing at an elite level right now, and is arguably the nation’s hottest team.

2. Who will win the turnovers battle this afternoon?

If you look at the stats, it was pretty much an equal matchup when the Spartans and Wolverines met earlier this year except for one thing — turnovers. The Spartans committed 18 turnovers versus only seven for the Wolverines, and that ultimately was a game-changer in that matchup.

It’s hard to win after committing 18 turnovers, but it’s even harder when the opponent makes you pay for your mistakes. That’s exactly what the Wolverines did in the earlier matchup and have been doing this year in general. So a huge key in today’s game will be whether or not the Spartans can protect the ball and not giveaway free buckets to Michigan.

The Spartans are averaging 13.4 turnovers per game, which is really bad, and even worse they aren’t forcing too many mistakes with only one of their last 15 opponents reaching double-digits in turnovers in a game. Plus, Michigan does an incredible job at protecting the ball at 9.3 turnovers per game — that ranks in the top 10 nationally. So the real question probably shouldn’t be who will win the turnover battle because that’s already known, but will it play as huge of a role as it did in the earlier matchup this year?

3. Who wins battle in the paint?

Both of these teams have the potential to shoot their opponents out of the gym on any given night — and that could happen today — but for me a huge thing to key on is the bigs. Who will get the most out of their bigs in this game.

Michigan really only has one guy who can take over the game downlow — Mo Wagner. Michigan State has quite a few guys that can post up and make plays, but none are as consistent as Wagner. However, they are all pretty darn good defenders. So that makes me wonder if the Spartans are going to try and take the three-point shot away, and force Wagner to beat them with multiple guys rotating into the game and defending him. That was the strategy with Isaac Haas when Purdue came to the Breslin Center in February, and it worked out for Michigan State.

Wagner dropped 27 points against the Spartans earlier this year, and ultimately was the reason why Michigan won that game. If he does that again then the Wolverines will be playing tomorrow for a championship. It’ll be a committee job trying to slow down Mo, and I bet Nick Ward will be fired up for another shot at him after the stinker of a performance he put up last time. Whoever wins the battle in the paint will have a great shot at winning this game.