Wolverines eye more than revenge: 'We're playing to be champions'

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Michigan’s Isaiah Livers celebrates a basket in the first half of last month’s game against Michigan State.

Ann Arbor — Not even the high altitude could stop Michigan coach John Beilein from getting updates.

While Purdue and Minnesota were playing Tuesday night in a game that had major implications in the Big Ten race, Beilein was heading out recruiting and stuck on a Delta flight 30,000 feet in the air.

When Beilein learned he was able to send and receive text messages on the plane, he quickly enlisted the help of his wife, Kathleen, to keep him posted on the score.

“I had to remind her that the time is really important in this,” Beilein said Friday. “She would say, 'They're up by four.' 'OK, how much time?' There were some pauses where I'm not very good with a TV timeout.

“But we got through it and by the time I landed, I knew the score and I was happy.”

That’s because the Gophers' win over the Boilermakers put the Wolverines back in control of their quest for a Big Ten regular-season championship and put Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue in a three-way tie for first with one game to go.

It didn’t take long for word to spread back on the ground on Michigan’s campus. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole and his teammates knew their title hopes hinged on Purdue losing at least one of its final two games.

When Michigan got the help it needed, Poole saw the message pop up in the team’s group chat: “Yo, Minnesota won.”

And with that, the outcome heightened the stakes and raised the stage for Saturday night’s rivalry rematch between No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Michigan State in East Lansing.

Bragging rights. Revenge. At least a share of the Big Ten title. The top seed in next week’s conference tournament. All of it is on the table for the Wolverines.

“This is kind of like the stuff you see in movies  going away, at Breslin, nationally televised against your rival who already beat you, Big Ten championship on the line,” Poole said. “There's not too much you can ask for. These are the situations you dream to be in.”

Even though it’s the first time in series history Michigan and Michigan State will face off in the regular-season finale with both teams vying for a share of the Big Ten title, Beilein isn’t ready to call this the “greatest game of all-time.”

For Beilein, the biggest regular-season games he's coached in are the finales where a team is fighting for its life and must win to get into the NCAA Tournament. While this clash isn’t that, it’s still one that will carry plenty of weight.

“It's great for college basketball, but it's great for these two programs,” Beilein said. “It's a 20-game (Big Ten) season and it comes down to this?

“Whoever wins is going to be champion. We're going after that championship and we're not going to look back and say, 'We had two other chances to win a championship.' No, this is the championship we want to win.”

Ask sophomore forward Isaiah Livers, though, and there’s no question the upcoming showdown is unlike any other regular-season game he’s ever been a part of  at any level.

"I think this is No. 1,” Livers said. “You're playing your rival, you lost to them already at home and it's for potentially to share the Big Ten title or outright win it. I think this is probably going to be one of the most important (games) that I've played in a Michigan uniform in the Big Ten.

"It's perfectly set up for us. They came in here and got a dub in front of our fans. Now it's time to go in front of their fans and get a dub in their faces to end the season.”

Like any rivalry game, revenge and passion will play a part, and the Wolverines will be motivated to redeem themselves after falling face-first at home to the Spartans two weeks ago.

But with the conference title and top seed “in our hands,” as Poole said, the only thing that will matter is Michigan's ability to stay focused, keep its composure and execute on both ends for 40 minutes in a hostile environment.

“I feel like we should go in there with a clear mind,” Poole said. “Obviously it will be in the back of our minds that they beat us. But we’re not going to be overthinking or feel like that's going to be our drive and our fuel.”

Instead, the Michigan players are gassed up to be in position none of them have been in before — one win away from bringing home the program’s 15th Big Ten championship and first since 2014.

“It would mean a lot,” junior guard Zavier Simpson said. “It would be something we'd be able to cherish and have forever. That means a lot right there.

“It's definitely a blessing getting another opportunity to present ourselves and our team and show what we're capable of.”

Getting payback and the last laugh would suffice in most instances. But getting a shot to speak one of their goals into existence? That's what really matters.

"Every day twice a day we go through some of our core values and we talk about our love for the University of Michigan," Beilein said, "and then we end by saying, 'And one day we'll be champions.' Start of practice and end of practice every day.

"Here we are and tomorrow we're playing to be champions. It doesn't get much better than that."


Twitter: @jamesbhawkins

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 is against a team (Maryland) with a winning record in conference play.