Niyo: Title showdown is 'fuel to the fire' for Michigan, Michigan State

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Chicago — At some point, it felt inevitable. Even if it was still inaudible.

Michigan State had just finished another brick-and-mortar demolition of Wisconsin on Saturday at the United Center, advancing to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament for the fourth time in six years.

And as the Spartans headed back to their locker room, they crossed paths with their rivals from Michigan who’d set up shop this weekend just across the hall.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo directs his team during the second half Saturday.

They’ve seen plenty of one another in recent weeks, and that led to the obvious question being posed to Michigan State’s players after their 67-55 win over the Badgers.

What would it mean to face the Wolverines for a third time in three weeks, and a second time with a conference championship on the line here in the month of March?

To a man, though, Tom Izzo’s players all answered the same way. It didn’t matter whether they faced Michigan or its Big Ten semifinal opponent, Minnesota, they claimed. They just wanted to win another title. When told later that his players had stuck to his hastily-written postgame script, Izzo laughed, “That’s the first time in a month they listened to me.”

They might be good listeners. But they’re terrible liars. And today we’ll find out just how bad, perhaps, because not long after the Spartans headed back to their hotel, the Wolverines made it official, running out the clock on a 76-49 thrashing of Minnesota and setting the stage for another Pure Michigan final at the Big Ten tourney.

And for Michigan’s players, vying for the school’s third consecutive Big Ten postseason crown, there was no sense hiding their feelings afterward. Not after getting swept by their rivals in the regular season, including last weekend in East Lansing when Michigan State raised another championship banner at Breslin Center.  

“It definitely adds fuel to the fire, for sure,” Michigan freshman Ignas Brazdeikis said. “We’ve got so many things going on. We want to win a championship, we lost to them twice, and now we can make history as well. So it’s almost like we have to win this game.”

Embracing the hate

Whoever does win Sunday, it’ll be a fourth straight Big Ten tournament title for either Michigan or Michigan State, and the sixth in the last eight years for one of the two programs.

“So we got what the media wants, what the fans want, and believe it or not, what the coaches want,” said Izzo, who’ll be trying win his sixth one of these.

There’s other things at stake here, certainly. Maybe even an outside shot a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the Spartans, who’d have a strong case at 28-6 overall with a second league title and a third win over another top-10 team in Michigan.

But as Brazdeikis openly admitted, the primal instincts tend to win out, even in a setting like this.

“We have to get our revenge,” the freshman said.

Izzo, of all people, can relate.

“People used to laugh at me when I said, ‘Of course I hate my rival!’ ” he said Saturday. “Who wants to hug and kiss the guy that took your girlfriend, you know? It doesn't make any sense.”

No, and trying to make sense of what might happen in this third meeting feels like a fool’s errand as well. 

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Five years ago, the roles were reversed, and it was Michigan State that shook off a regular-season sweep and claimed the postseason title in Indianapolis.

Michigan seems poised to do the same here in Chicago, with Zavier Simpson in complete control (20 assists and just one turnover), a better offensive flow (Isaiah Livers poured in a career-high 21 points in 22 minutes Saturday) and the same stifling defense that carried them all season. John Beilein’s team also welcomed Charles Matthews, their senior defensive stopper, back to the lineup after he missed the end of the regular season with an ankle injury.

But the Wolverines still have to prove they can corral Cassius Winston and Izzo’s new-look offense, one that Beilein was raving about again late Saturday. It's built now around “probably 100 different ball screens by the same guy” in Winston, and weaponized by the dynamic play of Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman, in particular.

“We haven't played well against them,” Beilein said Saturday, “and that's because they played so well against us.”

That they’re both playing each other again, well, that’s the best part. There’s been a lot of talk the past few weeks about top-10 matchups elevating the rivalry. And Sunday’s championship game, which precedes the NCAA Tournament selection show on CBS, only adds to that.

“When it starts to matter nationally,” Izzo said, “then you've got yourselves something special.”

So what if this isn’t the ideal scenario for Michigan State, playing three games in three days, then heading back to East Lansing for a quick turnaround before the real madness begins.

The Spartans were a banged-up team before they arrived in Chicago. And while this tournament run offered Izzo a chance to reintegrate Nick Ward (hand surgery) into the lineup — foul trouble against Wisconsin threw a wrench into those plans — it also added to the general wear and tear. Izzo joked he might skip the pregame walk-through back at the hotel and “just put like 10 beds in there” instead.

Winston added a left foot injury to his balky right knee the last couple games, and Kyle Ahrens took another hard fall Saturday against the Badgers that might be the last his bad back can take here in Chicago.

“We're wearing down a little bit, to be very blunt and honest with you,” Izzo said.

Still, the truth is, nothing gets Izzo going quite like this. “Championships, for me, are what I live for,” he said. And while they “kind of supersede rivalries,” he can’t lie.

To win another one at the expense of Michigan?

“Would it be sweeter? Maybe,” Izzo said, smiling. “That’s a secret.”

If so, it’s one that won’t keep for long.

Twitter @JohnNiyo