Ann Arbor — The Spartans are starting to fill up, right on time. And the Wolverines are hitting empty, at the most inopportune time.
This was a collision of two forces on opposite paths, one rising, one gasping. And it's getting clearer by the day that Michigan State is refueling, pushed by seniors desperate to leave a mark. The Spartans didn't clinch anything with their 80-67 beating of the Wolverines Tuesday night, other than a season sweep of their rivals, but they again showed how dangerous they can be when cornered.
Michigan State fed on the wounded, exactly as it should and pretty much as expected, with Michigan missing its two best players. Tom Izzo doesn't have a classically talented team but he has another classic rebounding team, and he has a pair of seniors, Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, who know what's at stake. Neither had ever won at the Crisler Center, and neither wants to hear suggestions that Michigan State's 17-year NCAA Tournament streak is in jeopardy.
The schedule is still daunting, with road games against Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, but the Spartans (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten) have gathered enough traction, they're a solid bet to get in. It's hard to judge them on this contest, with the Wolverines (13-13, 6-8) reeling, but the Spartans have won five of six in fairly impressive fashion.
Dawson led a dominant inside performance with 23 points and 13 rebounds against a helpless Michigan defense. Trice had 22 points and seven assists, directing an offense that shot 62 percent, including an incredible 25-for-32 on two-point attempts
"I give (Michigan) credit because we've been in those shoes where you have injured players," Izzo said. "And yet I think we're getting a little better. People are starting to understand their roles, and the seniors, Dawson and Trice, were phenomenal."
Hitting their stride
The Wolverines fought as they have since losing Caris LeVert for the season and Derrick Walton Jr. for an undetermined time. But now they've lost five straight, and whether it's a physical toll, a mental toll, or just an experience and talent toll, it's harder and harder for them to match up.
Every time they sniffed a chance to chip away at a Michigan State lead that reached 19, Michigan was repelled. Usually it was with a Dawson rebound or a Dawson dunk or a Trice pass or a Trice 3-pointer. The Wolverines can't capitulate and I doubt they will, even after losing three tough games in overtime. But this is mostly a problem beyond John Beilein's control right now. That's why he's less inclined to belabor the struggles of his outmanned team, and more willing to recognize what the Spartans are doing.
"I have a feeling they're really hitting their stride right now, their timing was really good, their backcourt is exceptional and Branden Dawson is really a difficult matchup for us," Beilein said. "They certainly have a Kryptonite for what we can do. They're really playing at a high level, and you can see they're going to be very good down the stretch in February and March."
The Spartans indeed may be finding themselves after crushing Northwestern on the road and edging Ohio State at home. But for perspective, they're also not that far removed from an ugly home loss to Illinois.
Trice has been good since assuming sixth-man duties, with freshman Tum Tum Nairn Jr. starting. Denzel Valentine can be up and down, but his up is way up there. And don't overlook the contributions of big men Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello, who shot a combined eight-for-eight against Michigan.
Not great yet
The Spartans were much, much better than two weeks ago, when they beat the Wolverines in overtime, but you can understand if Izzo is a tad cautious.
"I don't feel very good about anything right now except the big win tonight," Izzo said. "But we got a lot of work to do. We gotta become more disciplined. … We're not a great team yet — we're better defensively than I thought we'd be, we're better rebounding than I thought we'd be. But we have some deficiencies, and we just have to continue to tweak and control them. I think our ceiling is higher than it is right now."
The ceiling certainly is NCAA Tournament height, but beyond that, it's difficult to tell. Dawson has to stay aggressive and not float offensively. And when Trice and Valentine are shooting well, Michigan State has a potentially lethal inside-outside combination.
"It feels good to win (at Crisler), but it makes you mad we lost the last three years here," Trice said. "We have bigger goals. This isn't the time to get fat and sassy or proud of yourself, because we really haven't done anything yet. Our goal is to find a way to get to the Final Four, because that's what this program is built on."
It's also built on tenacity, which is what Izzo was demanding when he stopped practice the other day, sensing the Spartans were pretty pleased with themselves after beating Ohio State. The three leaders — Valentine, Dawson, Trice — bear the brunt of responsibility, and Izzo drove that point home.
And then, against a rival that has pained them before, the Spartans drove the point as often as they drove the lane, again and again. It was a well-beaten path, one they should be doubly determined to keep following.