Beard: UM-MSU rivalry game huge, no matter what

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — As Michigan and Michigan State have improved in recent years, there's been more than the in-state rivalry at stake.

Last season, Michigan State was ranked No. 3 before No. 21 Michigan pulled the upset. The Spartans returned the favor in the Big Ten tournament final when the Wolverines were vying for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But with both teams taking a step back, tonight's matchup at Crisler Center has less to do with national standing and more with Michigan State regaining the edge it's enjoyed the past two decades.

"They've gotten a lot better over the last four or five years and we've been where we were for the years before," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Monday. "A good rivalry is when either team can win — and that's where we're at now."

This year is a little different, though, as Michigan is saddled with injuries. Playing without Derrick Walton Jr. — the only in-state player on the roster — and Caris LeVert (foot, season) has been a tough obstacle.

In the midst of a four-game losing streak, the Wolverines are more concerned about having enough wins to receive an NIT bid than whether they can reach the NCAA Tournament.

Passion stands out

Still, for fans of both teams, it's about bragging rights.

"Both programs have gotten to the point where they're really good and people expect a great game," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "Even when I first got here, going up there or coming here, even though our teams were in that building stage of our program, I always thought these games have been the same.

"There's a lot of passion throughout the state from our fans and our players, who know each other. It's a great game and I don't think it's lost anything — or ever will."

Although Michigan State still has hopes of reaching the NCAA as well as contending for the Big Ten title, Izzo knows Michigan's struggles don't give him the luxury of overlooking the rivalry, especially after the first matchup went to overtime at Breslin Center.

"As far as Michigan goes and rivalry games go, records don't matter, you've heard all the clichés," Izzo said. "But they've been in every game, they played awfully well, I thought.

"So, it's a rivalry for just everybody who went there. For the 492,000 living alums, or whatever we've got. It's a rivalry for the teams and the coaches."

Although there's an increasing number of recruits from both schools from other states — Michigan has six from Indiana and two from Ohio, while Michigan State has two apiece from those states — there's still a strong sense of disliking the rival, ingrained or taught.

"When I came to the (2013) game, I had already committed and the Trey Burke steal over (Keith) Appling, that pretty much sealed how big the game is and the rivalry is with Michigan and Michigan State," said Michigan sophomore Zak Irvin, who got his introduction last season playing against MSU's Gary Harris, his high school teammate from Indiana.

"Everyone knows how well I knew Gary and that was something big for me. I always wanted to beat him, so it's nice to have the 2-1 lead over him last year."

Dawson wants the win

It's not the extreme dislike generated from the Fab Five's antics in the early 1990s or after the 51-point Spartans victory in 2000, but the sense of pride is no less than it was then.

"From being here for four years, from coming in for my first year, it's definitely grown," Michigan State senior Branden Dawson said. "Being an Indiana guy, I didn't really know too much about the rivalry. But being around Draymond Green, other great players ... it finally grew on me."

Michigan has won the last four games at Crisler Center, meaning this is Dawson's last chance to win at Michigan.

"It's definitely important," he said. "Being that they beat us twice last year and I wasn't able to play (hand injury). Just to get a win down there would be definitely important."

The standings might not reflect it, but the vitriol and chippiness will be there.

And even with a depleted squad, Michigan junior captain Spike Albrecht doesn't want to be on the team that sees the home winning streak against the Spartans end.

"It would be tough," Albrecht said. "We don't ever want to get to that point with anyone, let alone to Michigan State."

Michigan State at Michigan

Tipoff: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor

Records: Michigan State 17-8, 8-4 Big Ten; Michigan 13-12, 6-7

TV/radio: ESPN/WWJ

Outlook: Michigan State hasn't won at Crisler Center since 2010 and is looking for the season sweep. The Spartans look to be comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, but a loss could drop them back to the bubble.