- Associated Press - Saturday, March 5, 2011

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (AP) - The last time Michigan faced Michigan State, the Wolverines turned their season around with a stirring road victory.

Now it’s the Spartans who are eager to play the role of unfriendly guest with a point to prove.

“We understand that people are disappointed in us and we’re disappointed, but we know some of the reasons that people don’t,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Everybody knows our backs are against the wall and it seems our backs have been against the wall for a while.”

In a regular-season finale that will mean a lot more than expected, Michigan hosts Michigan State on Saturday with NCAA tournament berths _ not to mention the usual in-state bragging rights _ on the line. The Wolverines and Spartans are both on the bubble, a position neither team was really expected to be in.

Michigan appeared to be in a rebuilding mode back at the beginning of the season, while Michigan State was considered a national title contender. Instead, each team is hovering around .500 in Big Ten play with an NCAA tournament berth a possibility but by no means a certainty.

“Both teams have postseason on their mind,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Perhaps something that happens in this game determines some postseason. The fact that it’s Michigan State makes it certainly significant to everybody here, but I think both teams are going to be judged at the end of the year by _ how far did you go in March? And this is just the beginning of March.”

Michigan dropped six of its first seven games in conference play, and it appeared the NIT would be the best the Wolverines could hope for. Then they went to the Breslin Center on Jan. 27 and beat Michigan State 61-57 for their first win in East Lansing in 14 years. The victory was the start of a 7-3 stretch for Michigan (18-12, 8-9).

The loss to the Wolverines was just one disappointment in a season full of them for Michigan State (17-12, 9-8). The Spartans were ranked No. 2 in the country at the beginning of the season, but they struggled against a nonconference schedule that included losses to Connecticut, Duke, Syracuse and Texas.

The Spartans have looked nothing like the group of relentless rebounders who went to the Final Four the past two seasons. They lost by 20 points at home to Purdue last weekend, although they rebounded with a convincing victory Wednesday night over Iowa.

The Spartans went to the Final Four as a No. 5 seed last season, so if they do make the 68-team NCAA tournament this year, they won’t be taken lightly.

“March at Michigan State is an important month,” Izzo said. “In a sick sort of way, it’s kind of nice to be excited about trying to get in the tournament.”

For all its problems, Michigan State still has Kalin Lucas, who is averaging a career-best 16.7 points, and Draymond Green, who is averaging 12.4 points and leads the team in assists and rebounds.

Lucas has no interest in being swept by Michigan during his senior season.

“It’s going to be a good game in a great atmosphere,” he said. “We know we have to defend the 3-point line and play a lot harder than we did.”

A Michigan victory would pull the Wolverines even with Michigan State in the standings, which would be a stunning development considering the preseason expectations for each team. Michigan’s Darius Morris has done a little bit of everything, averaging 15.2 points and 6.8 assists, and he’s had plenty of help during the Wolverines’ resurgence.

Zack Novak made six 3-pointers during the win over Michigan State, and Stu Douglass’ 3-pointer with 20.2 seconds left put the Wolverines ahead by five. The victory was sweet, but Michigan is well aware the Spartans will be hungry to return the favor.

“We knew we had to change something real quick or our goals weren’t going to be met. Luckily we turned things around,” Douglass said. “I think we’ve matured a lot. I think they’re finding themselves _ Kalin Lucas is playing really well, and Draymond’s playing really well.”

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