Wojo: Spartans, Wolverines take grudge match to big stage
New York — This is what we wanted. This is what we needed. And frankly, it might be exactly what Michigan and Michigan State needed.
The Spartans and Wolverines will meet again after all, in the Big Ten semifinals, and while it won’t officially settle anything, it certainly sets up something. The top-seeded Spartans are still searching for their lock-down mentality despite winning their 13th straight game, 63-60 over Wisconsin on Friday. They’re also hunting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and of course, revenge against their rivals.
The fifth-seeded Wolverines are looking for a season sweep and a bit more consistency while riding their own seven-game winning streak after pounding Nebraska 77-58. Sports fans, take a moment and appreciate what we’re talking about here. Michigan (26-7) and Michigan State (29-3) have won a combined 20 in a row and yet are positive they can be even better. And they get to hug it out and mug it out on national television on one of basketball’s premier stages.
This should be pure, unabashed competition, more about pride and placement than defining a season.
And so they meet again
In a way, the Spartans have more to prove, despite winning the Big Ten regular-season title. They dropped the only meeting in East Lansing, 82-72, as Moe Wagner delivered a 27-point humbling.
The Wolverines also have something to prove, to climb up the NCAA seed line, perhaps as high as a 3 or 4 if they win the tournament for a second straight year. Michigan State has been the higher-ranked, higher-touted team all season and has shown it in a lot of places, just not head-to-head.
Without saying it too loudly, both teams are saying it — this is the matchup they wanted.
“I definitely don’t mind another shot,” Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston said. “I feel like I lost that (last) game. Maybe another opportunity to give me a chance to reassure myself. … I feel like we still haven’t played our best basketball. I think there’s still a better Michigan State team that we can reach.”
Michigan’s Zavier Simpson won that individual battle Jan. 13 with 16 points, five assists and zero turnovers. Winston had 11 points and four turnovers.
It was only one meeting two months ago but it’s had a lingering impact on both teams. The Spartans haven’t lost since, and the Wolverines haven’t suffered any confidence lapses since.
“I think that game really turned our season around a little bit,” Wagner said. “I think we realized, if we play within ourselves and do the things we do well, we can beat anyone. Michigan State is a great team. You got to give them credit, they are very talented. It’s on us to compete.”
These are two of the hottest teams in the country, rising in different ways. Winston has lifted the Spartans’ offense with tremendous shooting and decision-making. Simpson has lifted Michigan’s defense with tremendous tenacity and decision-making.
The Wolverines have developed an uncommon defensive edge that emanates from Simpson’s ball-hawking, trash-talking demeanor. You know emotions will bubble and Madison Square Garden will be noisy, and you hope the officials let the teams go as hard as reasonably possible.
There has been way too much foul trouble here so far, and does anybody really want to see Wagner or Jaren Jackson Jr. forced to dial it down?
Revenge can be a wonderful motivator, as the Wolverines showed by blasting Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won the first meeting 72-52 and needed this to keep faint NCAA hopes alive. Instead, they got flattened.
The Wolverines won as they’ve frequently won of late, with staunch defense and timely shooting from their upperclassmen — Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson. They wanted to make a point to Nebraska, and they know Michigan State would like to deliver similar vengeance.
“If you beat any team, or beat anyone at anything, I feel you’re gonna get their best shot the next one,” Simpson said. “It’s definitely going to be physical. There’s no secret about the rivalry, but again, you just gotta be smart. There’s gonna be some bad fouls on us, some good fouls, we gotta be able to bounce back and stay together.”
The point-guard battle should be fascinating. So should the play of the stars, Miles Bridges and Wagner. Bridges played much more at ease in the victory against Wisconsin, with 20 points and nine rebounds. Wagner was superb against Nebraska, with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Tom Izzo’s defense generally doesn’t switch on ball screens, which allows deep-shooting big men to get their shots, as Wagner did in East Lansing.
Maybe Izzo changes it up and throws the long-armed defensive dynamo, Jackson, at Wagner. John Beilein admits it’s hard to know how defenses are going to react, and he doesn’t have a lot of time to think about it. With such a short turnaround, neither team has given it much thought, although everyone knows what to expect.
“Going up there (to East Lansing) was pretty crazy, and I felt the hate they had for us,” Michigan freshman Jordan Poole said. “But now with something even more on the line, the game is going to be a little more amped up. … I definitely feel like they’ll be fired up, especially after losing at home. At the same time, we don’t want to lose to Michigan State ever.
“So being able to come out and prove who’s more the alpha dog is big.”
There are alpha-dog possibilities all over the floor. Perhaps it’ll be another prime stage for the exuberant Wagner. Perhaps it’ll be another prime moment for Bridges, who struggled in the last outing against Wisconsin but looked like himself in this one.
No No. 1 seed chatter
When the Spartans spoke Saturday, they didn’t know for sure they’d be facing the Wolverines, who hadn’t yet played. So they were measured in their responses, steady in their tone. They also aren’t ecstatic with the way they’ve played recently, despite the streak, with eight of their past 10 games decided by eight points or less.
That’s why Michigan State still is considered a 2 seed by most, and Izzo isn’t wasting any time fretting about it.
“I haven’t talked about a No. 1 seed in the Tournament because I really don’t care,” Izzo said. “It really doesn’t bother me. It does bother me that we’re not maybe playing at the level you need to play to advance in that tournament.”
That could change quickly with one spirited effort against a rival. For all its winning, Michigan State’s seeding stature could use a boost.
So could Michigan’s, although I doubt that’ll be top of mind for the players when they step on the court.
It’ll still be rival on rival, style on style, man on man, for a shot at a tournament championship. It’s not for everything, in the grand sense.
But in this setting, in this situation, it’s certainly for more than enough.
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Michigan
Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Madison Square Garden, New York
TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950
Records: Michigan State 29-3, Michigan 26-7
Outlook: The Spartans, seeded No. 1 for the Big Ten tournament, and the Wolverines, seeded No. 5, meet for the second time this season, with a spot in the conference championship game at stake. Michigan won, 82-72, on Jan. 13 in East Lansing, with Moritz Wagner leading the way with a career-high 27 points.