Ann Arbor — People have waited a long, long time for this. All season, but even longer than that.
Michigan and Michigan State finally will clash Sunday in Ann Arbor, and it’s fair to say they’re officially on equal terms, if not in equal health. They’ll carry the exact same goals and records — 13-3 in the Big Ten, tied for first, vying for a championship and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan avoided the trap and beat Minnesota, 69-60, Thursday night, and now the rivals will meet as top-10 ranked teams for only the third time. It’s the biggest regular-season matchup since Tom Izzo took over Michigan State 24 years ago. Well, at least until the next showdown in the finale March 9 in East Lansing, as the Big Ten churns toward a frantic finish. And you want to know the best part about high-stakes, in-state collisions? Control of the rivalry legitimately can shift with every encounter.
John Beilein and the Wolverines (24-3) have to love it, a chance to beat the Spartans (22-5) for the fourth straight time in what’s sure to be a wild Crisler Center. They also have to hate it, because the heaviest pressure now is on them.
Izzo and the Spartans have to hate it, that they’re missing two starters (Nick Ward, Joshua Langford) and plugging in untested pieces. They also have to love it, that they can be the undermanned underdog for a change.
No, it’s not Duke-Carolina, but Michigan-Michigan State — Mitten Madness, I tell you! — is real and finally appears sustainable.
Circumstances have changed in the past year or so, but you’re a fool if you think it can’t change right back.
Michigan has nudged ahead, based on the recent time frame, and rightly is favored to win at home. Izzo is 11-9 head-to-head against Beilein, but the Wolverines have won the past three by double-digits. They rolled to the Big Ten tournament title and all the way to the national championship game last season.
The Spartans haven’t made it past the first weekend of the Tournament in three years, yet despite sending two players to the NBA and losing two more to injury, they’re not going away. Before Michigan’s current run, Michigan State had won five straight meetings, four by double-digits.
Beilein has his program right where he always wanted it, where few envisioned it could go when he arrived 12 years ago, a perpetual contender. And you could argue Izzo has this team right where he often likes it, tenacious on defense, determined to overcome wounds, led by a superb guard, Cassius Winston.
When Ward, their 6-9 junior center and second-leading scorer, went down with a broken hand earlier this week, the Spartans took a huge hit in a lot of areas — size, depth, rebounding, interior scoring. Perhaps they got a boost elsewhere.
“This is gonna bring our team closer together,” Izzo said. “Whether we’ll have enough, I don’t know. We’ll find out. I’m not counting us out.”
Who would? In an odd reversal, Michigan State has adopted some of Michigan’s traditional strengths, and the Wolverines have done the same to the Spartans. Michigan plays tremendous defense, but at times has struggled to shoot. Michigan State plays its standard stifling defense and is shooting better than the Wolverines, especially on 3-pointers (38.4 percent to 34.9.)
That’s where Winston and Matt McQuaid can be so dangerous. And that’s where Michigan’s snarling defensive tandem of Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthew can be so effective. What Izzo’s Spartans have done is impressive, but not out of the norm. What Beilein’s group has done the past two seasons has not only been impressive, but culture-changing.
“(Simpson’s) leadership right now is as good as anybody we’ve ever had, he and Charles,” Beilein said. “Charles is not as demonstrative and doesn’t talk as much. Zavier’s got that ‘it’ that you need to lead a team, and the team respects him.”
Michigan is No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense. Michigan State is No. 1 in scoring offense. While Purdue lurks at 12-3 and still could swipe the title, these are the two best teams in the conference, and all that’s left to do is settle stakes between themselves.
Michigan has more shooters and creators — Ignas Brazdeikis, Jordan Poole — who can scorch at any time. Michigan State is much more singularly focused, with Winston averaging 18.9 points and the favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year. The Spartans lost big-man depth with Ward’s injury, but big-man depth isn’t the Wolverines’ strength. So while Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins will battle Michigan’s Jon Teske inside, the game will be controlled by the strong-willed point guards.
'I can always get better'
In Michigan’s two victories last season, Simpson was better, averaging 15.5 points, with seven assists and two turnovers. Winston averaged 11 points, with seven assists and five turnovers. Izzo is trying not to run Winston into exhaustion but doesn’t have much of a choice right now.
“Coach is gonna push me every day, and if he catches me slipping a little bit, he’s on me,” Winston said. “I wouldn’t even say it’s pressure. A challenge maybe, I can always get better. It just makes you hungry, makes you want to reach for more.”
Winston’s tank can’t be full right now, but there will be plenty of fuel available Sunday. The Wolverines have just as much, probably more. You can’t ever count out the Spartans, that hasn’t changed. But more and more, you can count on the Wolverines, who get another chance to wound their wounded rival and re-stake their newfound claim.