Niyo: Today’s UM-MSU game means a little more

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges, left, and Michigan junior D.J. Wilson meet Sunday.

Basketball, at its best, is a transition game, headed this way one moment and that way the next.

And in the heat of those moments, there’s not much time to think, let alone to think philosophically.

But late Thursday night, with the clock approaching midnight and a huge rivalry game looming in East Lansing barely 36 hours later, John Beilein’s thoughts briefly sounded more like Kafka than a coach whose team had just dismantled Indiana in a 30-point rout.

“The world corrects itself at some point,” he shrugged, “and basketball does, too.”

He’s right, of course.

And that’s a notion worth remembering — for both Michigan and Michigan State — when they tip off Sunday afternoon at Breslin Center, two teams meeting at a crossroads, perhaps, halfway through the Big Ten regular season and just beginning a full-court press to make the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan (14-7 overall, 4-4 Big Ten) has won three of its last four games since an embarrassing loss at Illinois — fairly viewed as another “white-collar” crime on their sagging record — forced them to reaffirm their toughness.

“We felt like we had something to prove,” senior point guard Derrick Walton said Thursday night, “and now we feel like we’re back at square one.”

Michigan State, meanwhile, has lost four of five heading into Sunday’s clash, the Spartans’ worst five-game stretch since 2011, when it ultimately took a Big Ten tournament run to lock up an NCAA.

“We have everything in our hands,” freshman Cassius Winston said. “We can’t lose faith in that. We can still do it. We can still make that big run that propels us to where we need to be.”

But for the well-rested Spartans (12-9, 4-4), it probably has to start with Sunday’s nationally-televised game on their home court, where they’ve lost to their in-state rivals just twice (2011, ’14) in the last 22 years.

“I think it’s as big of a rivalry as ever, because both teams need a win,” said Tom Izzo, whose Spartans have won the last four meetings in the series. “If we were both 2-18, all kidding aside, it’d still be a rivalry, we all know that. And if we were both 20-2, it’d be a rivalry for a different reason. But the fact that we’re both hungry for a win, I think that makes it as good or bigger.”

UM on the rise

ESPN’s latest bracket projections had Michigan State in the NCAA field as a No. 9 seed, and Michigan right where it was a year ago, slotted for a play-in game in Dayton, this time as a No. 12 seed. Yet that was before Thursday’s feast in Ann Arbor, and those tables could easily be turned this weekend.

The Wolverines certainly didn’t look like a bubble team against Indiana, throttling a team that’d just upended Michigan State and, despite its injury issues, still boasts one of the league’s most efficient offenses. Michigan blocked six shots, forced 16 turnovers and, buoyed by that transition game, produced one of the more impressive offensive displays you’ll see on a college court, scoring 90 points with no player attempting more than nine shots.

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Afterward, Beilein talked about his players finally “getting it,” understanding their roles and responsibilities, thinking less and doing more.

“We’re capable of a lot of things,” he said. “But a lot of teams are.”

And when he looks at UM’s remaining schedule, he jokes, “it makes my stomach sick.”

His players, though, are feeling something different right now, and it shows.

“We know it’s kind of judgement time,” senior Zak Irvin said, “where you really figure out what team you are.”

And “at this point in the season,” Walton added, “it’s all about being confident.”

MSU seeks a spark

That’s partly why Izzo was so determined to beat back the negativity after Tuesday night’s hard-fought loss to Purdue, arguably the Big Ten’s best team. He snapped at a question that referenced fan unrest and went out of his way to laud his young team’s effort.

A day later, after watching film of last year’s runaway win in Ann Arbor — led by a trio of now-departed seniors — Izzo was talking about what a difference a year makes. Or a few years, in this case, with a team that relies so heavily on freshman contributions.

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“There’s just more challenges that I even knew or you guys would think,” Izzo said. “But I’m really liking what we’re doing right now. We are getting better. Those guys are getting better.”

And the best player on either team, Miles Bridges, sounds ready to assert himself now that he’s feeling fit and healthy again after month-long injury absence. The versatile 6-foot-7 guard was unstoppable Tuesday against Purdue, finishing with a game-high 33 points, a school record for a freshman.

“And he couldn’t care less,” Izzo said. “I mean, he really couldn’t. It’s not for show. It’s not for you. It’s not for me.”

It’s for the team, it seems, and just as everyone knows Bridges needs more help offensively — whether it’s fellow freshman Nick Ward in the post or senior Eron Harris on the perimeter — he knows this could be a make-or-break moment here for the Spartans. A chance for this season to correct itself.

“We’ve been having team meetings, with just the players, emphasizing how much this game means to us,” Bridges said Thursday. “We need to get back on track. We need this win.”

Michigan at Michigan State

Tip-off: 1 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760, WWJ 950

Records: Michigan 14-7, 4-4 Big Ten; Michigan State 12-9, 4-4

Outlook: Michigan State has won four straight in the series, including an 89-73 win in Ann Arbor, the only meeting last season. … The teams played three times in 2014 with Michigan winning both regular-season games before MSU won in the Big Ten tournament championship game. … Michigan enters the game leading the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 9.4.