January 27, 2014 at 1:47 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is at a peak, with neither backing down

East Lansing Tom Izzos 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 weve been asking for.

Its here, and its 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, its 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 havent done in years. What John Beilein is doing with his team is remarkable, after losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last years 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 years 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 isnt 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 dont matter as much as NCAA Tournament runs, but winning the Big Ten could assure a No. 1 seed.

Sealed with a kiss

You cant 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 States 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 years 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 weve 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. Its a necessary trait because fellow sophomores Glenn Robinson III and Caris LeVert arent 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 dont understand competitive passion.

Obviously theres a rivalry between the teams, and its fair to say we dont 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.

No letup

Beilein tried to rein in the hype, even jokingly calling himself a killjoy. But theres 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 doesnt end any easier. Michigan still has to visit Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State, and face Michigan State and Wisconsin at home. I think itll 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 cant 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.

Were still right in this hunt, dont kid yourself, Izzo said. Were 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 didnt crack.

The Spartans still possess championship traits and so do the Wolverines, who showed guts and poise in a hostile atmosphere. Theyve shown it often enough to confirm its legitimate. Weve learned never to doubt Izzos teams as we churn toward March, and were learning to do the same with Beileins bunch.

As good as Michigan-Michigan State was on a bitter January weekend, its perfectly reasonable to suggest the best is yet to come.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine and Michigan's Jordan Morgan fight for the ball in the first half, exemplifying the warrior spirit that exists between the two schools on the basketball floor. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News