East Lansing – There’s no debate – rivalry games are different.
No, they don’t count more in the standings than another game, but there’s just something about them. From the intensity on the court to the buzz in the building, everything is ramped up.
It’s no different when Michigan State and Michigan meet on the basketball court. Every play counts. Big shots become huge and critical mistakes can be killers.
“The attention to detail is probably the biggest difference,” Michigan State senior Cassius Winston said. “These games feel like every turnover is like five turnovers, you know? Every missed rebound feels like it’s five missed rebounds. So the attention to detail, how crucial plays are (is a big difference). How one play in the beginning of the first (half) can hurt you at the end of the game.
“That's the big difference in these games -- every little thing matters.”
That will be the case again at noon on Saturday when No. 16 Michigan State travels to the Crisler Center to take on Michigan.
“I know the crowd is gonna be crazy just because this rivalry is legendary,” Michigan State junior Xavier Tillman said. “Every time we play them the crowd is crazy, so I know that it’s gonna be crazy. I know a lot of players are gonna play better. You can expect guys like (Jon) Teske and Zavier (Simpson) to really be ready to go because those guys have been through the wars and they know what to expect.
“Their vets are for sure gonna come to play, so we’ve got to be ready to start off hot.”
Starting off hot has been a problem for Michigan State (16-7, 8-4 Big Ten), especially away from home. The Spartans enter Saturday’s game having lost two in a row and three of four on the road.
In each of the road losses, slow starts have been compounded by a penchant for turning the ball over and failing to make winning plays down the stretch. Last weekend at Wisconsin, Michigan State nearly erased a 19-point deficit but missed a handful of layups in the final minutes. In a loss the week before at Indiana, the Spartans took the second-half lead but failed to finish the job as Tillman failed to convert on a lob pass that would have tied the game in the final seconds.
Those mistakes will all be emphasized in a hostile environment in Ann Arbor.
“They're gonna play at a different level because they’re at home,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the Wolverines. “And we understand that. We know that, but at the same time, I think we're going to play at a different level, too. So, it concerns me that it’s a rivalry games and they've lost some tough games, too, some close games.”
The latest close loss for Michigan (13-9, 4-7) came Tuesday at home to Ohio State. It was the third straight loss at Crisler Center for the Wolverines, who are well out of the Big Ten championship picture but are looking to make a final push to lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State, meanwhile, sits only a game out of first place despite its recent woes and feels like the matchup with Michigan is as critical for what it means in the title chase as anything.
“It’s more about the Big Ten race,” Winston said. “It’s about winning championships. At the end of the day, that's what we do here so you know the situation. (The game) happens to be against our rival but it’s a situation where we can kind of put ourselves back on track to get on a winning streak a little bit and make things happen.
“So, it's gonna be a tough environment. It’s a rivalry game so it's gonna be a crazy week, but it's still a big game in general.”
The big-game nature of it and its importance in the Big Ten race has led to some soul-searching recently for the Spartans.
After the loss to Penn State on Tuesday – the first at home in conference play this season – Izzo summoned his team for a meeting Thursday morning. He pointed out how the Spartans were fairing well in nearly every category but one – turnovers.
“We are dead last,” Izzo said.
The point was to show the Spartans that every play counts. A missed layup here and a turnover there has been the difference between a big lead in the conference and sitting a game out of first.
“It was necessary because we need to get our swagger back,” Tillman said of the meeting. “We needed to get our energy. We needed to find the love for the game again. With the losses it’s easy to stop appreciating what you’ve got. We had a meeting and we just said we needed to turn it around and everybody has to be more locked in.”
The Spartans say they’ve been more locked in during practice this week, a critical first step toward getting back on a winning track. They’ll get a chance to prove on Saturday against a Michigan team it has now beaten four times in a row.
Getting a fifth straight win won’t be easy. But doing so would not only keep the Spartans in control of a rivalry, it will signify they’re not going anywhere in a quest for a third straight Big Ten championship.
“It’s a huge game for our season really,” Winston said. “You don't want to dig yourself in that hole when you're playing for championships. To be a couple games behind or one game behind, whatever it is, it’s going to be hard to fight back, especially in this league. So, you want to put yourself in that situation going on the road in a tough environment with a lot of things riding on a game.
“But it's not our first time in a situation under pressure and we’ve got to do a good job rallying these guys and getting guys ready.”
Michigan State at Michigan
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Crisler Center, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Fox/760, 950
Records: No. 16 Michigan State 16-7, 8-4 Big Ten; Michigan 13-9, 4-7
Outlook: The game will be a “Maize Out” at Crisler Center. Michigan is 1-3 in its last four home games against Michigan State. … Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman account for roughly 42% of Michigan State’s offensive production. The duo combined for 52 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the first meeting on Jan. 5.