Branden Dawson and Michigan State must try to rebound from a pair of tough losses to nationally ranked opponents. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
East Lansing -- Big just got a bit bigger, for different reasons. Michigan and Michigan State aren't merely scrapping for Big Ten contention and tournament seeds now. They're scrapping to right themselves, and yes, define themselves.
This is the sobering truth about Big Ten basketball this season. You let down, you get beat up. The Wolverines were embarrassed by the Nittany Lions. The Spartans have lost two straight to top teams, which has Tom Izzo on edge, trying to remind antsy fans what they're seeing.
In college basketball's best conference, in a season of profound nationwide parity, it's hard to know what we're seeing. Michigan State is dominant! (After hammering Michigan, 75-52). Michigan State is shaky! (After losing tight ones to Indiana and Ohio State).
Michigan is terrific! (After ascending to No. 1). Michigan is awful! (After losing to last-place Penn State, 84-78).
Well, who's who and what's what? On Sunday in the Crisler Center, we're going to discover a lot, and I expect it to be more fiercely contested than the first clash. The Wolverines (23-5) appear cracked, but if they put the pieces together in this one, they'll look entirely different. The Spartans (22-6) appear slightly flawed, but if they beat the Wolverines again, they'll look entirely different.
Michigan desperately needs a win to show it has the mental and physical fortitude to hang with the big boys. Weak defense is an issue that hasn't gone away. If the Wolverines were hungry to avenge the pounding in East Lansing, the mood should be pure anger now.
But the Spartans have their own fuel, and while the first meeting was a testament to toughness, this is a test of resilience.
"Everybody wants to know what's wrong with teams. Well, you go through stretches and get your brains beat in, even when you're winning, and it's hard to stay up for every game," Izzo said earlier in the week. "I think our guys are gonna be motivated, too. I don't fear it. Except if people start telling our guys, 'Aw, you beat 'em by 20, it should be an easy game.'"
That was a shot at twisted expectations, as Izzo continues to grapple with the social-media stratosphere. He suggested his team had gotten "fat and sassy," and if you mention the T-word (not Tournament), he'll get atwitter about Twitter.
"Around here, nobody used to panic over three or four losses," Izzo said. "Now if there's two in a row, it's time to shut down the town. All the distractions aren't easy for coaches to deal with. Players are human. You want to half keep them off Twitter, half put them on Twitter. I think I'm gonna get a fictitious Twitter, and when we're playing bad, I'm gonna fictitiously tell my guys how good they are. And when we're playing good, I'm gonna fictitiously tell them how bad they are."
I think he was only half-joking. But if Izzo thought he had worries, imagine John Beilein's distress after Michigan melted horribly at Penn State, which was 0-14 in the conference. He's learning what Izzo has recognized for years, that in the brightest spotlight, it's difficult to keep players focused.
Even for teams like Indiana, which just lost at Minnesota, there's no escaping. My goodness, the No. 1 ranking has been batted around so often, it actually might end up in Gonzaga's grubby little hands.
Social (media) anxiety
Parity doesn't excuse or explain everything. While Izzo frets about perceptions, Beilein has to hammer a point without beating his team down, as he and his staff try to fix the defense. Michigan lacks size and strength inside, something a healthier Jordan Morgan could address. In the loss at Michigan State, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne pounded away.
This is new for Beilein, who never has had a team that stirred such expectations, at a time when the in-state rivalry is hotter than it's ever been.
"I realize how fragile teams are, especially at this level, with so many egos, so much attention," Beilein said last week. "I haven't stayed at places long enough to realize building a program is one thing, but maintaining it is a different challenge. It speaks so highly of what Michigan State has done, what Wisconsin has been able to do."
Assistant Bacari Alexander is Michigan's de facto Twitter policeman, monitoring messages. It might seem frivolous, but if you're a young player navigating a long season, it's not easy to keep your confidence intact.
Michigan asks a ton of star Trey Burke, who was frustrated by Penn State's hawking defense and then griped about the officiating. Michigan State asks a ton of Keith Appling, who appears worn down by all his responsibilities.
But hey, you want to play in a brutally tough conference, you have to survive it. Big Ten basketball is great for fans, great for TV, great for debate. It's just not so great for the coaches, who recognize how quickly teams can get exposed.
"If you're going to win championships, you have to win games like this when you're on the road up by 15 with 10 to go," Beilein said after the Penn State loss. "We didn't have what it takes, and it's that simple."
The Wolverines seemed to have it a month ago, when the chatter was about the Big Ten championship and a No. 1 seed. Same for the Spartans. Someone is about to turn it back around and perhaps cement a spot in the Auburn Hills bracket of the Tournament. And someone is about to suffer another reality slap in a crazy season where up is down and down is up, and directions change with little warning and lots of noise.