Michigan State's Keith Appling, left, and Michigan's Trey Burke have become national figures befitting Tuesday night's showdown. (John T. Greilick, Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — As basketball rivals, Michigan and Michigan State haven't always seen eye to eye. In fact, they rarely have. Tuesday night's showdown at Breslin Center will be the 170th meeting between these schools. Yet it's only the ninth time in the 104-year history of this intrastate series that both the Wolverines and Spartans will tip off as nationally-ranked teams. And as coaches of both teams were surprised to learn Monday afternoon, tonight's clash in East Lansing will feature the rivalry's first matchup of top-10 teams.
"Is that ever?" Michigan's John Beilein wondered.
"Ever?" Michigan State's Tom Izzo asked.
"Huh," Izzo replied with a laugh. "Surprise, surprise."
No surprise here, though: Even as coaches and players on both sides of the fence tried to avoid sparking any motivational brushfires Monday, all were embracing the unprecedented attention.
"I think it's fun to actually feel like the game matters in every way, shape or form — both locally and nationally," said Izzo, in his 30th season at Michigan State — the last 18 as head coach. "And I'm not sure that's happened since I've been here."
Actually, I'm pretty sure it hasn't, as the pendulum swings in the two basketball programs over the years have left them hopelessly divided in so many ways.
But in a season when the Big Ten has asserted itself as the nation's top hoops conference, and both No. 4 Michigan (21-3 overall, 8-3 Big Ten) and No. 8 Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) have established themselves as legitimate contenders not just for a league title, but also a Final Four spot and perhaps a national championship, this is no longer a backyard brawl that concerns only the bickering neighbors.
"The nation is talking about it now," Izzo said, "and I guess there's a sick side of me that it makes me happy."
Hey, happy sure beats content, right? And after dominating the rivalry for more than a decade, many Michigan State fans might even agree with Izzo: It was fun while it lasted, but that doesn't mean the fun has to end.
On the contrary, actually.
"I mean, who wouldn't rather dominate a series?" Izzo said. "But it's not a series that should be dominated by either squad, because both teams should be good. Both teams are good this year."
And it would appear both teams will be good for the foreseeable future, now that Beilein finally has the Wolverines on solid footing again. Three 20-win seasons in a row. A third consecutive NCAA Tournament spot already assured. A shot at a second straight Big Ten regular-season title. A top-five ranking all winter. ("I don't think there's any question this is their best team in a lot of years," Izzo said.)
It's nothing compared to the run of success Michigan State has enjoyed the last 15 years under Izzo. But it says something that the Wolverines have gone from relegated to relevant again, and not at the Spartans' expense. And it says something that Izzo was saying again Monday they've "built it the way they're supposed to build it," trying as best he could not to get dragged into the "animosity" of the past.
"I mean, I think bringing Michigan back to the national scene is certainly happening right now," Beilein agreed. "And we've just got to go on, wherever it takes us."
The world is watching
Tonight, of course, it takes them to Breslin Center, where the Izzone will be louder than ever — "This place is gonna be rockin','" point guard Keith Appling promised — and the Wolverines will no doubt hear it.
"As soon as we get off the bus, people are gonna be talkin' a lot of trash," said Trey Burke.
The players were under strict orders to avoid any trash talk themselves Monday, and they largely obliged. Derrick Nix, the Spartans' co-captain, casually predicted a "bloodbath" and admitted the obvious: "We don't like Michigan, and they don't like us." But as his coach later explained, "It's illegal to like your rivals; it's not illegal to respect them."
And with Michigan winning three of the last four in this series, there's finally a healthy respect growing on the court, with contrasting styles and coaching philosophies only adding to the intrigue.
More important, though, are the stakes in this one, with Michigan State and Indiana clinging to a one-game lead over Michigan and Wisconsin atop the Big Ten standings. Nix called tonight's ESPN late show a "must-win game," which may or may not be true.
But he also called it "a memory-maker." And what should make it even more memorable, he added, is that "everybody is going to be watching this time."
About time, right? After all, what good is a rivalry if you can't share it?
Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off : 9 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio : ESPN/WJR and WWJ
Line: Pick 'em
Records : Michigan 21-3, MSU 20-4
Series : Michigan leads, 87-72
Last meeting: Michigan State won, 64-54, at Breslin Center on Feb. 5, 2012.
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