Izzo, Michigan State not taking Michigan lightly ahead of Saturday's rivalry game
East Lansing —There’s a better-than-average chance that a big rivalry game is about to be played and few people have noticed, almost as if it came out of nowhere.
Michigan State and Michigan square off Saturday afternoon at Crisler Center, and a matchup that has been as highly anticipated as any for the better part of the last decade is missing the usual buzz of anticipation.
Maybe it’s the fact that both football teams just capped off successful seasons. Michigan won the Big Ten and made it to the College Football Playoff while Michigan State capped an 11-win season with a win in the Peach Bowl. But more likely, it’s the fact that at this point in the season, it doesn’t look like a fair fight.
Michigan State is the 10th-ranked team in the country, winners of eight straight and unbeaten through four games in the Big Ten. Michigan, a preseason top-10 team with national championship aspirations, is a game above .500 and has lost three of four, including two in a row to UCF and Rutgers.
It would seem Michigan State (13-2, 4-0 Big Ten) has the clear advantage.
Coach Tom Izzo has some thoughts.
“Anybody that thinks this isn't a good Michigan team is crazy,” Izzo said.
That sums up how Izzo and the Spartans are approaching the latest edition of the rivalry. The Wolverines (7-6, 1-2) have struggled , but that doesn’t change what Izzo believes is still one the best teams the Spartans will face.
“They’re one of the most talented teams, not only in the Big Ten, but in the country,” Izzo said. “Rivalries, as they say, throw out the (records). Rivalries in basketball where one team gets hot, it changes everything. It is a little different than even football, so I’m more nervous about this game than any of them because I think they're really good. I think the place will be rocking, I think it'll be great environment.
“And I wouldn't say their backs are against the wall, but I guess there's a sense of urgency. Our job is to match that sense of urgency for the same reasons, and that's what we'll try to do.”
Michigan doesn’t have its back against the wall, but considering it faces Purdue and Illinois next week, it would be in the Wolverines’ best interest to get a win against the Spartans and avoid what could be a 1-5 start to conference play.
The Wolverines could come out with plenty of fight. The Spartans insist that’s what they’re counting on from Juwan Howard’s team.
“For me, personally, I don't never look at the record,” Michigan State junior Malik Hall said. “I just look at what they're capable of. Because on any given night, anybody's capable of anything, really. If somebody has time to shoot threes, they can be 0-for-30 coming up into our game and then knock down five and it would just be their night. So, I don't really pay attention to anything like that, I just make sure that I know what they can do so I can be able to watch out for it and guard that.”
That means Michigan State will have to pay attention to Michigan’s veterans, namely guard Eli Brooks and center Hunter Dickinson.
Izzo called Brooks perhaps the best “glue guy” in the country, while Dickinson had plenty of success last season against the Spartans. It sets up to be a big game for Michigan State 7-foot senior Marcus Bingham Jr., who has emerged this season as one of the Spartans’ most important players.
“He’s a good player,” Bingham said of Dickinson, “and I'm just looking forward to the matchup.”
Of course, Bingham has help with Julius Marble ready to mix it up and Mady Sissoko likely to see some time, too. Michigan has been playing Dickinson along with 6-11 freshman Moussa Diabate.
“Julius played pretty well against (Michigan) and I think this is a game Mady’s gonna play more,” Izzo said. “So, we need to wear some people down. We need to use what our strengths are and our strengths are depth.”
The Spartans would also do well to take care of the ball, something that has come into focus again after they turned it over 19 times in Wednesday’s victory over Nebraska.
Much of Thursday’s work was on limiting turnovers. The Spartans spent time watching film and dissecting the miscues against the Cornhuskers. Hall said that process began at halftime of the game when the Spartans watched tape of the 11 first-half giveaways.
“We’ve got to do a better job as a coaching staff,” Izzo said. “If it was just normal — just 10-12 (turnovers) normal — maybe we have another win, we definitely have some better games and we would have played a lot better and scored a lot more points and had a lot more fun. So I don't want to not give credit to Baylor, or Loyola or Nebraska, the teams that turned us over 19, 20 times. Some of it is them … but a lot of it was us and I take full responsibility.”
This in-state rivalry is built on respect and animosity. Michigan State has plenty of experience with Bingham and fellow senior Gabe Brown well-versed on the Wolverines.
The Spartans say they’re fully prepared.
“You’ll never really understand it until you're in it,” said Hall, who got a crash course his freshman season when MSU lost at Michigan in his first appearance in the rivalry. “Once you get into it, it's different than you probably expected.”
Izzo has heard it all in Ann Arbor. He gets a kick out of it. After all, that means people are invested in the rivalry, something he loves.
Izzo is 30-19 against Michigan and MSU is 10-5 in the last 15 meetings. This one might not have the hype, but that matters little to the MSU coach.
“Jud (Heathcote) used to say it's greatest privilege on Earth, twice a year you get to play Michigan,” Izzo said. “I hope our guys think of it that way. … I know one thing, I'm going to coach the game for everybody who has played here, and I think Gabe and Markie understand that too, and that'll be important to them.”