Mar. 4—Ah, perfect time for a reality check. Michigan has hummed along as one of the best teams in the nation, barely challenged, rarely nervous, and now suddenly stung. Michigan State has dragged along as one of the most perplexing teams, beaten badly at times, now beating the big boys.
The Wolverines (18-2) and Spartans (14-10) are about to meet twice in four days, starting Thursday night in Ann Arbor, and this is what rivals are destined to do. They check each other.
Michigan has been impressive for too long to assume it now has a critical flaw, after a dreary performance in a 76-53 home loss to Illinois. Juwan Howard said the effort was "not acceptable," and that might be the only time he's uttered that phrase all season. The Wolverines have won 13 Big Ten games by an average margin of 15 and can clinch the conference title by beating the Spartans once. In that sense, nothing has changed.
And yet, it feels like something has changed. Tom Izzo was near tears as he talked about his team's gutty effort in a 64-58 victory over Indiana, Michigan State's fourth win in five games. The Spartans have battled COVID and a gruesome schedule and now get to face their toughest opponent twice.
In an imperfect Big Ten season, the perfect finish. The Wolverines remain a sizable favorite, and based on roster and resume, they should be. They also should be riled up now, and barring a couple of losses and an early exit in the Big Ten tournament, they're still in line for an NCAA No. 1 seed. But we saw what happens when the drive slips and anything is taken for granted.
In the Spartans, we've seen what happens when danger rises and nothing is taken for granted. Are these recent outcomes mere blips, or fully legit? We're about to find out, and each team has a chance to boost, or crush, the other's hopes.
"What a cool opportunity this is, huh?" Izzo said late Tuesday night. "You get a chance to play against what I can argue is the best team in the country, your rival, and play them twice. You're doing it under circumstances that are probably tough for them, but I think everybody would agree we've had the toughest two weeks of everyone. We're still hanging in there. We're just gonna keep battling and see where it takes us."
We've seen how the Spartans handle adversity, when their 22-season NCAA Tournament streak teetered. Since then, they've beaten Illinois, Ohio State and Indiana twice, with a loss to Maryland tossed in. They're on the cusp of getting in and the brink of being left out. If they beat Michigan once, they're probably in.
Bump in the road
But which Michigan team are they facing? If you've paid any attention this season, you know not to overreact to lopsided scores. The Wolverines still have one of the most efficient offenses and defenses in the country, a diverse attack that looks effortless at times. They had risen to the same level as Gonzaga and Baylor as NCAA championship favorites.
But Illinois, playing without star Ayo Dosunmu, bullied them (42-26 rebounding advantage), a blueprint the Spartans surely noticed. Was it a revelation on how to beat Michigan, or an aberration? I'm gonna assume it was an aberration, unless Michigan State shows otherwise.
"They did great defensively by being physical, getting into us, not allowing us to get to our spots," Howard said, after Michigan hit two of seven 3-point attempts. "Every guy that played tonight could do a better job. And they owned it, they know it, that's the beauty of it. Everyone was honest with themselves, including the coach, the coach can do a lot better too."
Howard has been superb in his second season, a National Coach of the Year candidate. The Wolverines still have to win one more, or hope Illinois loses at Ohio State, to secure a Big Ten title that seemed all but assured.
The Wolverines have played assuredly all season, with one other weird blip, a 75-57 loss at Minnesota. Against the Illini, 7-1 freshman center Hunter Dickinson ran into a body just as big as his in Kofi Cockburn. Illinois swarmed the perimeter and clogged the lanes and the Wolverines responded poorly.
Dickinson and Franz Wagner, who have been tremendous, shot a combined 2-for-17. Isaiah Livers, the senior leader, looked unsteady, then injured a leg. He returned to the game and should be able to play.
"Not making excuses, we can't get complacent, we can't think ahead, we can't think of MSU and Indianapolis," Livers said. "We gotta focus on each game. We prepared like Ayo was playing and he wasn't. Credit to (Illinois), we didn't bring it tonight."
Ready to March?
The truth is, the Spartans didn't bring it until late against the Hoosiers, when Aaron Henry took over, scoring 12 straight. While the Wolverines are balanced across five positions, the Spartans have Henry and Joshua Langford, and a history of cranking it up this time of year. This is when singular stars rise, and Henry looks capable of more.
"The pressure's on us, everybody knows it, we know it, whether we address the issue or not," Henry said. "The things we're trying to do and places we're trying to go, we have to continue to bear down. When the pressure's on, that's where guys in my position that have been here before have excelled and gotten teams over the hump."
There always are learning experiences, painful or otherwise. This will be Howard's third UM-MSU game as coach, and the teams were 1-1 last season. Because the pandemic canceled the tournaments last year, he hasn't coached in that type of pressure yet.
Everyone is fighting fatigue as conference schedules condense because of COVID pauses. The Spartans have played four games in seven days and they'll need valuable minutes from others, primarily Gabe Brown and Joey Hauser. Izzo said he believes Michigan State is an NCAA Tournament team right now, but knows it's best not to leave the debate open.
"We'll see if we have enough energy down the stretch," he said. "I know our legs are spent. That's not an excuse, it's a fact of life. It's crazy not to see what we've been through, but it can't be an excuse when you go to play Michigan. If guys can play on both feet, I'm cool with that. If they can play with both knees, I'm cool. If they can play with both hips, I'm cool. We still got a long way to go, no rose-colored petals here. This team is showing some character, and I'm proud of them for that."
It's the Wolverines' turn for a character test, a rare one for them. You can bet Izzo took great interest in how Illinois slapped bodies on bodies and made Michigan uncomfortable. The Spartans have bodies of varying skill and growing will. The Wolverines have greater skill but must reassert their will.
These rivals are coming from different angles, fortunes twisting and fates colliding. Michigan has been mostly dominant while Michigan State has been partly puzzling. Not that long ago, a Michigan blowout seemed likely, and one ugly outcome doesn't automatically change that. The Spartans are looking to define themselves and the Wolverines are looking to redefine themselves, juicy stakes we didn't necessarily see coming.