Spartans will rely on seniors vs. Wolverines
East Lansing — Tom Izzo isn’t planning any emotional speeches.
Michigan State travels to Michigan today, and there’s little doubt emotion will be running high in the only meeting of the regular season between the rivals.
But as much as Izzo — and most coaches — know every game only counts for one, the reality is this game is different.
“I think Matt and Zel, they’ve gotta cover those things in the locker room and all that,” Izzo said of senior captains Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine. “They’ve gotta cover it in practice and make sure we know that the last couple games, we can relate back to losing a game at Wisconsin or losing a game here where one play makes a difference.
“Usually, rivalry games come down to closer games most of the time and you try to feed off that, too. There won’t be any rah rah speech by the coach, but I think it will be a lot by the players.”
The Spartans senior class, particularly Costello and Valentine, have seen their share of ups and downs in the series. They’ve won the last three and are 4-3 during their career. But there’s no doubting what this game means.
“It’s more than fandom,” Costello said. “Some rivalries they hype up for good PR and stuff, but this is literally a whole state divided. You can go anywhere in the state and with Michigan and Michigan State there is always a conversation going on which school is better.”
Costello and Valentine didn’t take long to understand the emotional highs as lows.
As freshmen, they were part of a 75-52 drubbing of the Wolverines at Breslin Center.
A few weeks later, they suffered one of the most crushing losses in series history, 58-57, in Ann Arbor. With seconds remaining and the score tied, Michigan’s Trey Burke stole the ball from Keith Appling and went in for the winning layup.
“Oh, my God,” Valentine said about the final moments of that game. “That is my worst memory. We had that game won. Keith was coming over to call a timeout and Trey knew it was going to happen because we’d been doing it all game. As soon as he dribbled over there I see (Burke) sneaking over there and I’m yelling, ‘Keith!’ But he couldn’t hear me because it was so loud in there. Next thing you know he took (the ball) and I’m standing there like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ”
That loss knocked Michigan State out of the running for the Big Ten championship, and illustrates just how important this game can be.
Valentine recalled the conversations he had with former teammate Gary Harris, who was from Indiana.
“Gary was all ‘I can’t wait to play Indiana,’ ” Valentine said. “It was Indiana this and Purdue that. I’m like, ‘You ain’t seen nothing until you play Michigan.’ They played here and he didn’t think it was a big game and we came in for shootaround and the place was packed. Nick (Stauskas) came out and they’re booing and chanting, ‘U-S-A.’ After that game he was like, ‘You’re right.’
“What I’m trying to say is you don’t really know, you can’t explain the type of game it is until you actually go there.”
Getting some of Michigan State’s freshmen — Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid — to understand that will be the challenge for Valentine and Costello.
“The Michigan fans know the most about you but you have to block all that stuff out and not try to do too much,” Costello said. “They’ve been part of so many big games already early in the season. Our freshmen have been exposed to things like that so I’m not worried about how they will perform.”
That loss when Costello and Valentine were freshmen was the first of three straight for Michigan State in the rivalry, a skid snapped in the Big Ten tournament championship game the next year.
“One thing we talk about as Michigan State Spartans is leaving here with a winning record against them,” Costello said. “We don’t want to tie it up, so we’ve got to take care of business.”