East Lansing – Yup, Tom Izzo is right, there have been a lot of big games at the Breslin Center.
But even the Michigan State coach conceded this week that Saturday’s battle between No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Michigan State might be the biggest. At least, it might be the most anticipated with the most on the line.
“There have been a lot of big games here, a lot I’ve enjoyed,” Izzo said this week. “But when you look at those things – the rivalry, both teams in the top 10, playing for a championship with seeding implications for the Big Ten tournament, seeding implications for the NCAA Tournament, national television.
“All those things, I’d say yeah. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Izzo should know. He’s seen every game Michigan State has played in the arena since it opened for the 1989-90 season. He was there that season when his now associate head coach Dwayne Stephens had the game-winning dunk against Purdue in the final seconds to win the Big Ten championship in 1990. He was there in 2013 for the first top-10 matchup in the Michigan series when the Spartans rolled and was there last year when Miles Bridges’ triple with 2.7 seconds to play knocked off No. 3 Purdue, helping lead the Spartans to another conference title.
He’s seen the other side of the big games, too. From the overtime loss to Wisconsin in 2004 when a Big Ten banner was in the rafters ready to be unfurled to the loss to Ohio State in the final game of the 2012 season, Draymond Green’s last.
Saturday's game, though, could top any list that might be compiled of games played in East Lansing with the most at stake. The fact it comes on Senior Night and pits the Spartans and Wolverines just adds to the buzz. What Purdue does against Northwestern earlier in the day matters little – the winner on Saturday night will win at least a share of the championship in the first meeting between the rivals on the final day of the season with the title on the line.
“This is great for this state, great for both schools, great for the Big Ten and great for the national scene,” Izzo said. “I’m proud that we’ll be a part of it. Just like the (Champions Classic), there are certain things you get to do every year that separate your program and I think Saturday night will be, with Duke-Carolina, Michigan-Michigan State, might be the one of the best nights of basketball of the year.
“We’re just trying to get fresh now and get ready to go.”
The getting ready part is key for Michigan State (24-6, 15-4 Big Ten). After the hype wears off, it’s just a basketball game, one the Spartans will need to win short-handed. Kyle Ahrens’ status remains unclear as he continues to battle a back injury that kept him out of Tuesday’s win over Nebraska while center Nick Ward remains doubtful as he rehabs from a broken hand.
Add in the aching knees of point guard Cassius Winston and the heavy minutes for seniors Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid, and the Spartans will need to be as fresh as they can be.
Winston, however, isn’t about to let a little fatigue deter him from the ultimate team goal as he likely wraps up Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
“If you’re not up for this game you got a problem,” Winston said. “Championship, against your rival, Senior Night. We’d be up for the game if we didn’t win any games all year or won all our games all year. That’s how we treat seniors here. We try to send them out the best way possible and now the best way possible is to win a championship, and that just adds fuel to the fire.”
The fact the Spartans and Wolverines (26-4, 15-4) played just two weeks only adds to the chess match for Izzo and Michigan coach John Beilein. Michigan State beat Michigan, 77-70, at Crisler Center and they did so by changing up their defense and confounding the Wolverines’ offense. It also mattered that Winston got the best of Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, scoring 27 points and handing out eight assists.
Michigan coach talks about Saturday's rivalry rematch in East Lansing where at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title will be on the line. James Hawkins, The Detroit News
Which team makes the key adjustment could be critical this time around while Michigan deals with its own injury concerns as Charles Matthews has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
“I’m sure they’ll hope they play better than they did the first time and I’m hoping we play better than we did the first time,” Izzo said. “We both did things we felt we did well and did not so well. I don’t know, we’re gonna make some adjustments and they’re gonna make some adjustments and that’s where the chess match comes in.
“I still think we’re not gonna try and reinvent the wheel and I don’t think they will either.”
For Michigan State, that means a big game from Winston, a better rebounding effort than the last meeting, taking care of the ball and getting out on the break. It might not all happen, but that’s the Spartans’ goal going in.
When it’s all said and done, the Spartans just might have their second straight conference championship as this matchup takes its place in Breslin Center lore.
“It will all unfold like it’s supposed to unfold,” Izzo said. “There can’t be bigger game than we’ve played here in lot of years and that’s all you can ask for at the end of the season.”
Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/760, 950
Records: No. 7 Michigan 26-4, 15-4 Big Ten; No. 9 Michigan State 24-6, 15-4
Outlook: This is the fourth top-10 meeting in the rivalry series and second this season…Michigan State is 8-2 in Big Ten finales against Michigan…The Spartans are 14-1 at home with every win coming by at least 11 points and nine by 20-plus points…The Wolverines are 6-3 in Big Ten road games but only one victory came against a team (Maryland) with a winning record in conference play.