East Lansing — While there might not ever be a perfect time for a rivalry game, it sure seems like it’s coming at the right time for Michigan State.
Losers of three straight games and four of the last five, the Spartans host Michigan at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Breslin Center, and while winning against the Wolverines is always a high priority, the Spartans are just as focused on turning things around midway through the Big Ten season.
“I don’t know if there is a good time or a bad time,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after practice on Thursday evening. “What I do think it’s a good time for is when you play your rival you’re a little more focused. We all want to say the (George) Perles' theory that they all count as one or this and that, but we all know that it’s not true.
“So I don’t know if there was more focus today, but if there’s anything we can learn to keep our guys a little bit more focused a little bit longer — not play harder — but with a little more energy, it’s a good thing. That might be part of it, I don’t know, but today was a good day.”
There haven’t been many of those good days recently for Michigan State, at least outside of practice. After losses to Ohio State and Indiana, the lack of a full 40 minutes of effort was lamented from players and coach alike.
In Tuesday’s defeat at the hands of Purdue, the focus was better but the execution lacked at times, leading to another loss.
The fact Michigan is up next certainly heightens the emotion, however the Wolverines are on a bit of a roll themselves after Thursday’s 30-point lambasting of Indiana. They’ve won two straight and three of their last four.
It’s enough to almost put the rivalry on the back burner.
“My bigger concerns right now are our record and what we got to do,” Izzo said. “Their experience, right now they’ve got a lot of experience and that helps too in rivalry. They have guys that have played in a lot of them. We have a lot of guys that haven’t played in one yet. Those things concern me.”
Michigan State will also be dealing with a drastic change from what it just saw. In the loss to Purdue, it was a physical battle against an offense dictated by one of the best big men in the country and another that stands 7-foot-2. It will be a far different attack the Spartans see on Sunday.
The Wolverines aren’t nearly as imposing in the post and will look to attack from the perimeter.
“That’s the hardest thing with young guys,” Izzo said. “You go over one thing and now you flip it 180 degrees. We were watching tape from last year and we were so smooth in guarding them because everybody had played them expect for (Matt) McQuaid and (Deyonta Davis) and neither one played more than 15 minutes.”
The Spartans won’t have the luxury of leaning on experience this time around, but they do have a four-game winning streak over the Wolverines.
And while the focus is certainly on getting a win, it doesn’t change the fact this game is different from the rest. It’s something that is hammered into the thought-process of every player from the time they arrive on campus, though those from the state don’t need much help.
“I can remember (my first game) and we only played once my first year and that upset me,” said Warren native and sophomore Kenny Goins. “It was instilled into us that we don’t lose to Michigan and we went out there and were up by like 30 at one point and won by 15. I know they’re gonna remember that and I remember it too because that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The question most seasons is how the freshmen will adapt to the rivalry. For Michigan State, it’s a bit more of a concern considering they count on four for extended minutes. But Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston are from Michigan while Nick Ward is an Ohio native, so they have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on between the schools.
As for Alabama native Joshua Langford, Izzo said, “I just told him to pretend it was Alabama-Auburn, so he’s cool with that.”
“It’s crazy,” said Winston, a Detroit native. “Being from here, that day Michigan and Michigan State play everyone is tuned in and everyone is watching the game. I grew up watching the game. To be playing in it myself, it’s crazy that I have the opportunity to play on such a big stage.”
And as ready as he is for it, the atmosphere will still be a shock.
“I don’t think any of them really doubt what it is,” Goins said. “I think they’ll see a whole new level of it when they actually get in the game because no one actually knows what it’s like until you’re in it.”
Michigan State can only hope once its youngsters are in it they don’t get overwhelmed. They’ll need to keep to keep their cool not only to win a rivalry game, but to get a season gone off course back on track.
“There’s a lot riding on this game,” Winston said.
Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950
Records: Michigan 14-7, 4-4 Big Ten; Michigan State 12-9, 4-4
Outlook: Michigan State has won four straight in the series, including an 89-73 win in Ann Arbor, the only meeting last season. … The teams played three times in 2014 with Michigan winning both regular-season games before MSU won in the Big Ten tournament championship game. … Michigan enters the game leading the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 9.4.