Adreian Payne (5) teams with Derrick Nix to give Michigan State a formidable duo in the frontcourt. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Michigan is going where it rarely goes, while Michigan State is going where it often goes. But for both programs, this is less about the destination and all about the direction.
They're headed to different places down different paths, but after the momentous Auburn Hills Annihilations, one thing is similar: The Spartans and Wolverines are capable of busting through limits, real or imagined.
They're headed to the Sweet 16 together for the first time ever, and are right back to being the Final Four contenders once projected. The theory was, they lost something down the stretch of a taxing Big Ten season. If so, by escaping the conference rigors in the rollicking Palace atmosphere Saturday, they found something. And they're hunting for more.
The Wolverines, in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1994, seek further validation they're back under John Beilein. And the Spartans, in the Sweet 16 for the 11th time in Tom Izzo's past 16 seasons, are courting confirmation they never went away.
Michigan will meet Kansas in gigantic Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Friday night. Michigan State faces Duke on Friday in Indianapolis. Daunting tasks against storied foes? Of course. But you could argue, in a weekend that saw No. 1 seed Gonzaga lose amid a blur of shockers and near-shockers, Michigan and Michigan State were as impressive as anyone, winning four games by an average of 18 points.
The Wolverines were fashionable picks to get upset after a 6-6 finish to the Big Ten season, but blasted Virginia Commonwealth, 78-53, and pounded South Dakota State, and now will be fashionable picks to revisit why they were ranked No. 1 earlier. It's not a huge surprise, especially after opening the Tournament in their own backyard, but it's telling.
"I think once the Big Ten started, the team as a whole lost some confidence," Trey Burke said. "We lost some heartbreakers that you'd love to have back. But we know it's a new season and we're playing at an all-time high level right now. We showed a lot of people we're hungry and that we're still good — don't count us out."
That's newly true for Michigan, and almost always true for Michigan State. But let's not be short-sighted, either. Both were staggering a bit entering the Tournament, looking for a boost. The Palace crowds provided the energy, and the teams did the rest.
Michigan State found its lethal feistiness, destroying Valparaiso and Memphis. Michigan found its confidence, and unlocked the potential of 6-10 freshman Mitch McGary.
In fact, for all their talent, the Wolverines and Spartans desperately needed help from the youngsters. Glenn Robinson III shot 15-for-19 in two games. McGary was even hotter, 16-for-20, and destroyed VCU with career-highs in points (21), rebounds (14), floor burns (a lot) and punishing picks (an amazing one).
Michigan State freshman guard Gary Harris was equally impressive against Memphis with career-highs in points (23), shoulder-pain grit (a lot) and savvy smoothness (no known measuring method).
Michigan and Michigan State were so dominant, and the fan bases mingled so well, and McGary and Harris were so good, let's go ahead and meld the freshmen into MitchMcGaryHarris and apologize for it later.
"It gets the whole crowd and the whole team going when you see Mitch running around, diving for loose balls, dunking and screaming," freshman guard Nik Stauskas said. "That's the kind of style we like to play, to get up and down and get easy baskets in transition.
"Hopefully, people realize we're starting to peak right now. In my mind, we're playing our best basketball we've played in a long time."
In the wild swings of the college game, confidence is a real thing, and nobody was joking when they said Big Ten teams would flourish once they stopped banging on each other. Beilein made the right move putting the spirited McGary in the starting lineup over Jordan Morgan, but Michigan will need all its big guys against Kansas 7-footer Jeff Withey.
Spartans are growing
Figuring out who to push is what pushes a team through the Tournament, and the Spartans are figuring things out. We all focused on their huddle tiff against Memphis, when Derrick Nix and Keith Appling whipped towels at each other, because it's precisely the type of passion Izzo loves.
Deeper than that, the Spartans showed the inside-outside muscle that makes them as dangerous as anybody in the Tournament. Yes, as anybody, no qualifiers needed.
"This team has really grown together, I'm not kidding you," Izzo said. "(Adreian Payne) and Nix have gotten a lot closer, and they understand one needs the other."
The inside game opens it up for Harris, who's playing with an achy shoulder. Appling's shoulder and knee woes also are a concern, although he says he'll be fine. Appling and Harris are playing through pain and Payne is delivering pain, and the Spartans aren't over-thinking anything.
Fierce defense and rebounding compensate for plenty, as usual. The Spartans often are bonded by cracks and pushed by will. They're letting it fly, from the towels to the sweat to the emotion.
"I feel like the Tournament is about how hard a team can play and how focused a team can stay," Nix said. "It's not really the Xs and Os anymore. When we come out with that energy, we can play our kind of basketball."
Michigan State's kind of basketball is different than Michigan's. But if the first weekend was an accurate indication, both can work and neither can be overlooked, not anymore.
Whatever was lost, perhaps was found.