East Lansing — Tom Izzo’s voice was hoarse and his tone subdued. He was about to step away from the podium, but had one more thing to say.
“Well guys, you wanted a rivalry, you wanted two good teams,” he said. “I guess we got what we’ve been asking for.”
It’s here, and it’s captivating to watch. Michigan-Michigan State basketball is not Duke-North Carolina as far as national impact, not even close. But this season, with these two teams, it’s as good as it gets. Forget all the injuries and debate after the Wolverines’ 80-75 victory over the Spartans Saturday night, and recognize the unfolding truth.
Michigan and Michigan State are authentic Final Four contenders again, testing and pushing each other in ways they haven’t done in years. What John Beilein is doing with his team is remarkable, after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year’s national runner-up and losing Mitch McGary to back surgery. The Wolverines (15-4) are atop the Big Ten at 7-0 with three straight victories over top-10 teams, and Nik Stauskas is developing into this year’s Burke.
The Wolverines’ revival was announced two seasons ago when they shared the Big Ten title, but the question was going to persist: Could they hang with the Spartans? The impressive part is, Michigan keeps advancing, even though Michigan State isn’t retreating.
The Spartans (18-2, 7-1) will rebound and be extremely tough again when they get Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson back from injury. The rematch in Ann Arbor Feb. 23 should be epic, with the Big Ten title possibly on the line. No, conference crowns don’t matter as much as NCAA Tournament runs, but winning the Big Ten could assure a No. 1 seed.
Sealed with a kiss
You can’t disregard what Michigan just did, beating its rival for the fifth time in seven tries, no matter how battered Michigan State is. The Wolverines trailed 60-58 with 4:20 left and scored the next 10 points, with freshman Derrick Walton Jr. nailing big shot after big shot.
Michigan State’s backcourt of Gary Harris and Keith Appling is tremendous, part of the reason Izzo has a prime chance at his second national championship. The Spartans are a top-five team when healthy, and the Wolverines are growing into a top-10 team. Consider this: Of the five Michigan players posting the most minutes Saturday night, three were sophomores and one was a freshman, with Jordan Morgan the lone senior.
I asked Stauskas if last year’s run to the title game — an 82-76 loss to Louisville — emboldened this team.
“Definitely, but we have guys like Derrick who are brand new to this, and he did a great job too,” Stauskas said. “For the returnees, it helped a little bit, but we’ve done a great job just learning on the fly.”
Stauskas has become the straw to it all, and he skillfully straddles the line of feisty brashness. It’s a necessary trait because fellow sophomores Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert aren’t boisterous types, and Walton Jr. is a newcomer, although a steadily improving one.
As the game ended, Stauskas blew a happy kiss to the Breslin crowd, and if anyone has a problem with a simple gesture like that, they don’t understand competitive passion.
“Obviously there’s a rivalry between the teams, and it’s fair to say we don’t like each other very much,” said Stauskas, who hit five of six 3-point attempts. “So it makes it a lot of fun to come on the road and make these fans quiet up.”
Beilein tried to rein in the hype, even jokingly calling himself a “killjoy.” But there’s no denying this was huge for Michigan, for the in-state boost and the impact in the standings.
The Wolverines have three of the most notable victories of this Big Ten season: at Minnesota, at Wisconsin, at Michigan State. After this brutal stretch, it doesn’t end any easier. Michigan still has to visit Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State, and face Michigan State and Wisconsin at home. I think it’ll take at least a 14-4 mark to win the conference, and Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin are capable of that.
“Both teams played awfully hard, but the better team won and made the plays down the stretch,” Izzo said. “When you got as many shot-takers and shot-makers as they got, you can’t cheat very much. When we did, (Stauskas) knocked it home.”
The way the Wolverines are shooting — Stauskas is a staggering 46 percent on 3-pointers — they could hit a roll like they did last season. And the way the Spartans are capable of defending and rebounding, especially with Payne and Dawson, they could hit another classic roll.
Would it surprise anyone if either team made it to the Final Four? Nope. Would it surprise anyone if both made it? Sure, but not ridiculously so.
“We’re still right in this hunt, don’t kid yourself,” Izzo said. “We’re here and might even be stronger than we were before the game. Now we gotta find a way to survive, like the NCAA Tournament, advance and survive.”
Izzo was especially emotional after the loss, even by his standards. He knows Appling is trying to shoot through wrist pain and he knows an assortment of backups did their best, but Michigan didn’t crack.
The Spartans still possess championship traits and so do the Wolverines, who showed guts and poise in a hostile atmosphere. They’ve shown it often enough to confirm it’s legitimate. We’ve learned never to doubt Izzo’s teams as we churn toward March, and we’re learning to do the same with Beilein’s bunch.
As good as Michigan-Michigan State was on a bitter January weekend, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest the best is yet to come.