Monday, January 16, 2012

The biggest meeting in a long, long time

Despite two discouraging losses on Saturday, MSU and Michigan come into Tuesday's men's basketball game with a lot of hype.

Before Saturday, it appeared possible that both squads could come into the rivalry game ranked in the top-10 for the first time in history. Still, both will be ranked in a meeting for just the seventh time in the rivalry's history, and the first time since 1998. The game will tip from Ann Arbor at 7 p.m. on ESPN/

MSU has been one of the biggest surprises in the country this season, using strong defense, rebounding and timely shooting to get to a No. 9 national ranking. U-M is about where people expected and ranked No. 20 by AP. Before Saturday, neither team had a bad loss, and both had a few good wins. These are two of the top teams in the Big Ten, and the winner of Tuesday's game will have a much-needed rebound from a bad loss.

Tuesday begins a tough stretch of games for the Wolverines. After hosting MSU, U-M goes on the road for three straight games against Arkansas, Purdue and Ohio State, hosts Indiana and then travels to Breslin Center. On the other hand, the Spartans play four of the next five games at home after traveling to Ann Arbor.

Don't expect an offensive explosion at Crisler Center tomorrow. U-M and MSU come in at third and fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 60.7 and 60.8 points, respectively. MSU is third in the conference in scoring offense (76.7), while Michigan is eighth (69.3).

Even from the three-point line, where Michigan often lives and dies, the Wolverines are shooting just 35 percent, while MSU has been improving from beyond the arc and are shooting 36 percent. But the Wolverines are shooting less than 32 percent from three in Big Ten play, including an 8-for-31 performance against Iowa on Saturday. MSU is second in the conference in three-point defense (30 percent), but Northwestern shot 8-for-17 on Saturday.

Rebounding is always part of MSU's keys for success. The Spartans lead the Big Ten with a +10.1 rebounding margin, while the Wolverines are seventh at +2.7. Last year, both teams had 29 rebounds at Breslin Center, as U-M won its first game there since 1997. At Crisler Arena, MSU had 16 more rebounds, but MSU shot 12-for-39 on two-point shots in another loss.

The Wolverines are led by sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.7 points) and freshman point guard Trey Burke (14.3 points, 4.9 assists). Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson are expected to match up with Hardaway, while Keith Appling will have Burke. Draymond Green said the Appling/Burke matchup while be a key to the game, but Tom Izzo downplayed it.

Both teams have their big two (Green/Appling, Hardaway/Burke), so perhaps whoever has a third guy step up will be a big key. Speaking of Green, he has averaged six points and 3.8 rebounds in five games against U-M. A big reason for that has been because he gets in foul trouble against the Wolverines (fouled out of both games last year).

But outside all the stats, this rivalry game will come down to energy, according to Green. Another strange offense could be a problem for MSU's young perimeter. Northwestern's Princeton-style offense befuddled the Spartans all game long, and don't be surprised if U-M runs more backdoor cuts than normal.

MSU's blueprint for success is pretty simple: defend U-M's three-point shooting, dominate the glass and hit enough shots. Staying out of foul trouble also will be important. If U-M hits its threes, a win will be hard to come by.

The rivalry is obviously big for everyone in this state. Losing to U-M for the first time was a big blow to Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers in their senior season, and Green talked today about how personal the game is. He roots for the field hockey team to beat U-M. That's how much it means to him.

U-M coach John Beilein said the two wins last year were big for fans, but he looked at them as two big wins for his team. Izzo doesn't quite feel the same. He remembers how U-M dominated MSU when he took over as head coach. U-M leads the all-time series 93-74. Since the late 90s, Izzo has mostly dominated the rivalry, but U-M has won four of the last 10. SpartanMag has a good story on Izzo's feelings regarding U-M.

Jalen Rose and Jimmy King after MSU's win in Ann Arbor in 2010.
Notice the MSU kid on the right.
(I'll post highlight videos tomorrow)

Izzo doesn't like to talk about last season, but he did point out that he doesn't like U-M and they don't like him, and that's the way it should be. Given the recruiting classes both schools are starting to pull in, this rivalry should quickly become one of the best in college basketball, the same way it's becoming in football. That's what Izzo has always hoped it would become.

I'll end on this quote from Izzo, which I think sums everything up perfectly. It should be a good one tomorrow.

"Do I respect John Beilein? Tremendously. Do I respect Michigan? Tremendously. Do I like them? Not one bit."

(I imagine Izzo saying that last sentence like this)

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