Michigan State and Michigan will meet at 4PM on Sunday at Crisler Arena. It is the 171st time they have met to play basketball. Coming off of beating their arch rival on February 12, 75-52 the Michigan State Spartans have not played their best basketball.
Tom Izzo reflected on that game saying, “In Michigan I arguably said that was our best game and to me one of their worst. Always underline is did one cause the other or the other cause one? I don’t know that. I don’t know how he thought they played. I know how I felt they played and I didn’t think they played very well. I think we played really well. I am sure it’s going to be a different game down there.”
I would agree with him on the Michigan State front. After losing last night at lowly Penn State, UM may be at their low point finally. UM has talent and coaching, but pitiful defense is their Achilles heel.
The Spartans are 22-6 (11-4) and the Wolverines are 23-5 (10-5) and both now have their eyes affixed on the big dance.
While the Spartan Nation frets a two game losing streak Izzo has a much simpler approach. He said, “Everybody wants to know what is wrong with people. Well go through stretches and get your brains beat in or even when you are winning. You having to put so much that it is hard to stay up for every game.”
Izzo is normally a glass half empty type of person, but this time the roles are reversed with the fans. “I sense a little bit of panic around this phenomenal town of ours, but it’s not by me. I am a little bit more disappointed in some things that happened, but I am not in any panic mode.”
Izzo describes his cagers two game stride with common sense. A key attribute not always displayed around here in February. “We are going to play good teams and when you play good teams you are going to lose games. I would like to win them all, but we are not that kind of team yet. I am hoping the best basketball we got is coming. When you look at the number of ranked teams we have played all year it could have ended up half our schedule. Consequently we are all going to have to deal with some of those things.”
Izzo is successful for many reasons. One of them is that he stresses over the tiniest of details. Some would think after pounding Michigan earlier this month that he doesn’t have much to tweak heading in to the game. Well it doesn’t take long to find the glass half empty Izzo with that kind of thinking.
He said, “We did have some success, but you can’t get carried away either. We shot 48% we shot thirty some percent from the three we shot 50% from the three. It wasn’t like we came out usually when you play a game like that you shoot sixty some percent and shoot uncharacteristic from the three. The only thing we did that was maybe more uncharacteristic is we did rebound the ball a little better than we have in some other games. The shooting we were not much different than our regular. Defensively I think we did a pretty good job. I thought they missed some shots that they normally hit. So you know I don’t know how much we are going to do different I would like to keep it all the same. We definitely have to do some.”
When you are MSU and have had the success that Izzo has, big games are part of the way of life. Gary Harris said before the Indiana game about those high profile tilts, “That is why you come to Michigan State.”
Is there a danger when you seemingly have a big game every time you touch the court? Especially in the nation’s best conference: The Big Ten? Izzo addressed that added stress, “Yeah, and keeping the guys from jumping off the cliff when they lose a couple of them. It was brought up in this interview I had today with another famous coach that our tournament, there’s gonna be one, maybe two teams that are ranked that are going to play on the opening day. That should be illegal. When does that happen? That just gives you an idea on how difficult it is and it’s amazing. I’ve talked to other coaches that have said ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ “
So as the Spartans approach this very big game, is the worry in Izzo that his team will let up after the previous meeting? Now that Michigan has lost and lost the way and to whom they did that has to be a double concern for Tom. “I think it will motivate them but I think our guys are gonna be motivated too. We had lost what, three out of five to them or whatever? We had guys that came in here and never lost to them. So there’s motivation on both sides and we’re still playing for a lot too.”
Izzo reminded why the Spartans have reasons to worry. “We didn’t think we shot the lights out or did this or that, we thought we earned it the old fashioned way. We defended very well, we did a pretty good job offensively, scored inside and that’s the way. But nobody came away saying, ‘Wow, we just beat the world, we just played our best game offensively.’ We thought we did a very good job defensively and we knew.”
Izzo knows the Wolverines will not play as poorly this time around. “Hardaway’s not going 1 for 11. If Michael comes back and guards him he’s not going 1 for 11. We know that, we understand that, but we’re gonna try to make sure that whenever he scores or whenever anybody scores it takes a lot to do that. That’s what you look for an event like this. Can we play as good defense, can we take care of the ball, can we handle their runs, cause they’re a good spurt team, they’re gonna be at home. I don’t fear it.”
The worry Izzo does have may shock you. “I don’t look down on anything cause we won big here, except if people start telling our guys, ‘Ah, you beat them by 20, should be an easy game.’ Trust me, we have some people that would probably say something like that. I know our team knows that isn’t the truth, they have great respect for Michigan; they know what Michigan’s done. Michigan has done this all year long. Almost like Indiana, I don’t think they’ve been out of the top eight all year, have they? We’ve been more up and down and they’ve sustained excellence like Indiana all year long. So, no locker room talk, no stuff to put up, but it’s true. I can’t believe you didn’t ask me – I love Michigan, by the way. I love them.”
Well I don’t believe the last sentence, and neither should you. What matters is that he does respect them and this game Sunday has monster stakes. If you look back at the last several games in Ann Arbor we do know one thing. It will be a great game. A Final Four feel in February. Must be Big Ten and must be Michigan State vs. Michigan.