Wojo: Michigan's huge win changes (almost) everything

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Maybe Michigan State isn’t exactly what everyone thought, the biggest and best in the land, at least not yet. That’s one notion in the aftermath of this rivalry revelation.

Here’s another notion: Michigan might be better than anyone thought, quicker and tougher than most realized. With one stirring display of poise and punch, the Wolverines managed to affect the perception of two teams at once, and served notice about their potential.

Michigan won here in a way it almost never has, not since Tom Izzo has been around. The Wolverines were the aggressors, the tenacious rebounders, the clutch-time performers. One game certainly doesn’t settle everything, but this said a lot about John Beilein’s group, which didn’t buckle in a methodical, 82-72 beating of Michigan State Saturday at Breslin Center.

There was nothing fluky about it. Moe Wagner was the best player on the floor, scoring 27 points, but Michigan didn’t win with some magical flurry of 3-pointers, or some strategic quirk. The Wolverines won by doing what the Spartans almost always do, by playing tougher when it mattered and where it mattered.

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Michigan only hit six 3-pointers (on 15 attempts), but collected more offensive rebounds (11-8) and committed seven turnovers (to Michigan State’s 18). Directed by point guard Zavier Simpson, the Wolverines played as if they knew they were going to win, and left the Spartans a bit dazed.

“Hopefully this will be motivation that we can’t let teams out-tough us, especially on our home floor,” Michigan State star Miles Bridges said. “That’s embarrassing. It’s gonna be really hard to live that one down.”

Now we’ll see how hard it is for Michigan to live up to it. We’ve learned our lesson about anointing prematurely, but with such a solid victory over the No. 4 Spartans, the Wolverines get a taste of heightened expectations, after giving the Spartans a taste of their own methods.

“Michigan State is a tough team, they’re gonna try to intimidate you, and if you have any fiber in your body that you’re kind of afraid, it’s gonna show,” Simpson said. “We came into this game and knew we were gonna be tough and stick together, and we did.”

Blue grit

So, that one-point loss to No. 5 Purdue a few days earlier wasn’t a fleeting flash, but a sign of the Wolverines’ growth? Sure looks like it.

So, that 16-point loss to Ohio State and overtime victory over Rutgers weren’t easily dismissed blips for the Spartans? Apparently not.

Oh, the Spartans are still an elite team, just not top-five worthy at the moment. The revelation here isn’t that Michigan State (16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is beatable. It’s that Michigan (15-4, 4-2) could end up being the second- or third-best team in the conference.

Michigan State has outsized talented, although Izzo is still trying to figure out how to use Nick Ward, how to coax more aggressiveness out of Bridges, and how to handle inconsistent point guard Cassius Winston. You suspect he’ll figure it out, but it might take some time.

Michigan is showing it has depth, quickness and solid experience. Senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman sets a steely tone, and Simpson has a feisty disposition that reminds you of last year’s leader, Derrick Walton Jr. Isaiah Livers and Jordan Poole add athleticism without the standard freshman fears, and when you see the pieces together, you’re reminded of a not-so-old adage: Don’t underestimate Beilein when he has shooters, a versatile, talented big guy, and a floor leader.

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“We did show the grit,” Beilein said. “My assistant, Saddi Washington, said, ‘Coach, this team may be different. This team has some of that grit that you may need to win games like that.’ I think it was evident, that whenever they’d make a little run, somebody would come up with a big hoop, or a big stop.”

Simpson was especially tested, missing four straight free throws down the stretch. How’d he handle it? By hitting five of six in the final 90 seconds.

Resisting the crazy

The marquee play came with 3:08 left and Michigan up by six. It was danger time in Breslin Center, where teams often cave to the pressure. Wagner was undeterred, drove the lane, dribbled behind his back to send Ward tumbling, and dropped in a layup to silence the crowd.

It was an athletic move and an audacious move, an indication these Wolverines indeed could be different than how they’re often portrayed. Their rebounding has been very good, as has their defense. After winning the Big Ten tournament a year ago and reaching the Sweet 16, they’re done dealing with tired labels that they’re finesse-oriented.

“That’s been over with since last year,” said Wagner, still playing with a sore ankle. “I don’t hear that stuff anymore. I’m not listening to that because they don’t deserve being heard. … I don’t care what other people say. They didn’t talk about us all year, so to be honest — don’t take this out of context — I don’t care. At the end of the day, we’ll see who laughs last.”

Wagner is the emotional turbine and relishes the role, alternately stirring up and shushing the Breslin crowd. The Wolverines have been unranked all season, but that’s about to change. They have to be careful about traps, though, hosting Maryland on Monday before a trip to Nebraska.

The Spartans get to spend the week stewing before hosting Indiana Friday, but I don’t get the sense Izzo will spend any time panicking. Winston (two assists, four turnovers) had a rough time trying to keep up with Simpson, but the Spartans shot well enough (45.7 percent).

Michigan won this in the jagged margins, in the rebounding lanes, in the ability to fight through ball screens, which the Spartans struggled to do. But again, this probably says more about Michigan’s development than any diminishing of Michigan State’s chances.

“The lesson is, people are crazy (with expectations), and we have to battle that,” Izzo said. “Listen, this is a very good team, and we got exploited by two guys (Wagner and Simpson). We’re better defensively than a couple guys played. …. As much as this team has given this place, I’d feel bad if everybody jumped off the bandwagon. We’ve lost a couple games, big deal.”

It’s a larger deal when one of the losses comes against the rival, and the result probably shocked some people. Strangely, I don’t think it shocked the Wolverines, who showed their scrappiness against Purdue.

They do look different, mentally and physically bonded, tough enough to win by double digits in a place few visitors ever win. The Spartans aren’t going away, no matter how they’ve looked lately. But the Wolverines are coming on, quicker than anyone expected.