Michigan State learned over the past two games that being the conference favorite comes with a price. The Spartans know they'll pay a hefty one if they continue to have lapses against their biggest rival.
They lost their No. 1 ranking on Sunday by getting blown out by unranked Ohio State, then barely survived at home against unheralded Rutgers on Wednesday before pulling out a 76-72 overtime victory.
The fourth-ranked Spartans now host Michigan on Saturday afternoon in their only regular-season matchup this season.
"We have to play tough. They are a tough team," Spartans sophomore forward Miles Bridges said. "They are playing well too, so we just have to bring it and if we don't, we are going to have a loss on our home court and we don't want that."
Toughness is his team's big issue, according to coach Tom Izzo.
The Spartans (16-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) are struggling with the burden of expectations and taking the opponent's best shot every game.
"I don't really care where they are mentally, confidence-wise," he said. "I care where they are mentally toughness-wise. I don't worry about their confidence. We've been a good shooting team all year. I'm worried about, are they going to bear down and get a little tougher. That's what we've got to do."
Izzo has a challenge for his best player.
He wants Bridges, the team's All-America candidate, to stop deferring so much to his teammates. Bridges went scoreless in the first half against the Scarlet Knights and finished with 11 points. He has scored fewer than 20 points the last six games.
"I'm going to push Miles, I really am," Izzo said on Wednesday. "I told him, 'hang onto your hat tomorrow,' because he's such a good player. He really is, and he's got so many positive things. But he's going to give me something, I'm sure, and I'm going to teach him how to be a little more of a jerk. I'm good at that. So that's what I'm going to do."
The Wolverines are coming off an agonizing 70-69 home loss to No. 5 Purdue on Tuesday. Moritz Wagner was called for a foul with four seconds left and Boilermakers center Isaac Haas sank one of two free throws to give his team the lead. Charles Matthews' desperation half-court heave at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
"I know our kids will be better from this game," Wolverines coach John Beilein said. "There's not many teams that are better coached, more solid in all the areas and as veteran as Purdue."
Michigan (14-4, 3-2) had its seven-game winning streak snapped. The Wolverines now face their second Top 5 opponent in a row.
"We thought we had them," said guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who needs to score 21 points on Saturday to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career. "We just didn't make some plays down the stretch."
In their only game against the Spartans last season, the Wolverines snapped a five-game losing streak in the series with an 86-57 victory at Crisler Center. Michigan will be seeking its first win at the Breslin Center since 2014.