East Lansing — The freshmen sort of knew, but not really. They heard and read about the rivalry, but that’s not the same.
And then they stepped on the Breslin Center floor, spied the bright maize uniforms, felt the crackle of the crowd, saw the Izzone bouncing madly, and they understood. In fact, they picked it up rather quickly. Michigan State beat Michigan 70-62 Sunday by playing with a defensive tenacity that had been absent, and no one should be surprised it returned.
The Wolverines have a way of bringing the best out of the Spartans. The game was chippy and a bit chirpy, with the type of physical engagement the Spartans enjoy. Michigan didn’t back down, and senior Derrick Walton Jr. was in the middle of everything, pushing as hard as he could. Normally, the experienced team in a rivalry game has the edge, not the team starting three freshmen.
But this was the day Tom Izzo was going to learn plenty about what he has. Michigan State was in danger of slipping below .500 in the Big Ten, and so was Michigan. But this was at home, where a conference loss can be crushing, against an opponent Izzo is forever driven to beat. It was Michigan State’s fifth straight victory in the series, and although there have been more-hyped clashes and better games, there haven’t been many fraught with this much danger.
Neither team has done nearly enough yet to assure an NCAA Tournament bid. The Spartans (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) had lost four of their past five and are still on the bubble to keep their 19-year streak alive. The Wolverines (14-8, 4-5) also sit uncomfortably on the bubble, and blew a chance at their first road victory. The heavy pressure was on the Spartans here, and it all shifts to the Wolverines for the Feb. 7 rematch in Ann Arbor.
Three Michigan State freshmen controlled the game, with Miles Bridges (15 points, 13 rebounds) taking over down the stretch, big man Nick Ward (6-for-6 from the field) dominating inside in limited minutes, and point guard Cassius Winston closing it out by hitting 10 of 11 free throws.
“I can only imagine what those freshmen were going through, first rivalry game, you feel it,” Izzo said. “It was thick in the air. When both teams are playing for a championship, it’s big. But if both teams are playing for survival, it’s just as big or bigger.”
The desperation was reflected in the erratic play, and both teams did uncharacteristic things. Michigan, which led the nation in fewest turnovers (9.2 per game), had nine in the second half and finished with 13. Michigan State, which usually dominates the boards, got outrebounded and gave up 14 on the offensive end.
And wasn’t this the Michigan team that rang up 90 points on Indiana three days earlier? Walton scored 24 but shot 4-for-12, and flu-ridden senior Zak Irvin was 0-for-8. Michigan State came in as a middle-of-the-pack defensive team but chased shooters all around the perimeter and eventually contained Michigan’s only effective inside presence, Mo Wagner.
“We couldn’t get good looks, they just shut down everything we wanted to do,” John Beilein said. “Great defensive plan. They’re really good at being physical with their defense without fouling.”
Michigan State’s physical style rarely is a good matchup for Michigan. The Wolverines can counter with lethal 3-point shooting, but they hit only 7 of 26 and didn’t make a field goal in the final 6:05. The deadliest deep shooter actually was Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid, 3-for-3 on 3-pointers, a performance the Spartans have craved.
Michigan’s experience might be a bigger factor in the rematch, but the Spartans’ youthful gusto was the edge here. And it helps that one of the freshmen is a supreme talent, as Bridges shows over and over.
“It was a really physical game, guys were talking stuff, cheap shots, getting hit, I like that,” Bridges said. “That’s my type of game. We’ve been through a lot of great games with high intensity, but Michigan-Michigan State is a whole ’nother level.”
It was entertaining to see the passion from start to finish, without anything really ugly happening. Izzo got a technical foul early, and that sent the crowd into a froth. Walton jawed a few times with Bridges and Tum Tum Nairn, and officials had to warn them.
Late in the game, with Michigan State’s lead only 61-56, Wagner and Ward got verbally feisty during a timeout. The refs overreacted and slapped both with technicals, the fourth foul for each, rendering them less effective in the waning minutes.
There was nothing aesthetically awe-inspiring about the game, and nothing to convince you either team definitively will be worthy of an NCAA bid. This was a back-in-the-ditches, hitch-up-the-britches type of game, the type the Wolverines are still learning to play, the type the Spartans are yearning to play again.
“I think in life, everybody gets complacent, me included, sometimes,” Izzo said. “So sometimes it’s OK to struggle. It makes you re-look at what’s important and get back to it.”
You can’t say the Spartans are back to anything for sure, because as already noted, they often crank it up against their rivals.
In an up-and-down season, both teams are seeking missing elements, and at least for a game, the Spartans found theirs where they usually look.