Friday, February 3, 2012

The best college rivalry continues Sunday

We walked past the tailgates around Michigan Stadium.

It was 2008, and my friend and I were walking around the athletic facilities before the MSU-Michigan football game. When we neared Crisler Arena, we saw an elderly man standing by himself.

“Is that John Beilein?” I asked.

It was. So we walked over, and both shook his hand. He’s lot stronger than he looks, based on that handshake.

We talked some basketball. The Wolverines were coming off a rough 10-22 season, but were starting to make ground in recruiting. It was an uphill climb. He jokingly said that the facilities he pitched to recruits were like communist Russia compared to what MSU and Tom Izzo had.

That was a long time ago.

I got my first look at the new Crisler Center (that's what they call it now) on Wednesday, covering the U-M/Indiana game for Inside The Hall (Plug: See my work here). Based on what that arena has become — and will be once the renovations are complete — the old Crisler Arena really seemed like something out of old Russia.

The playing fields have evened between U-M and MSU, and the play on that field has as well.

With three wins in a row, MSU fans can’t pretend that U-M basketball isn’t a real thing anymore. The same way the MSU football fans demand the respect in football. Sunday’s game looms large for both teams in terms of Big Ten standings, but it isn’t a decree on the state of the rivalry. Just like football, both basketball programs are here to stay.

Both programs are top-20 in the country, and both are going to stay there for a while, based on the upcoming recruiting classes. Also like football, these fanbases can’t fathom an even rivalry. Every time one of these schools wins a game, the “gap is closing” argument comes up. Fans are only used to domination on one side. But this should be an exciting time.

No, MSU football won’t catch up to U-M in Big Ten championships for a long time, and U-M basketball won’t have six Final Fours in 14 years. But that doesn’t mean the programs aren’t even on the playing field. And isn’t that what’s important? What's happening right now?

Across major college sports, this is the best rivalry in the nation right now, if only based on competitiveness. ACC and Big East football do not compare with their basketball, and SEC basketball is… let’s just say not like football. The Iron Bowl of basketball doesn’t mean anything.

The Big Ten is the only conference with equatable football and basketball rivalries. When you throw in the in-state thing, there isn’t anything comparable to MSU/U-M.

What has separated the basketball rivalry from the football are the personalities. You won’t see Izzo calling U-M “little brother,” but he'll display both respect and dislike in a few sentences. While some U-M students will chant “angry midget” at Izzo, there’s a respect for the coaches and players involved among non-student fans. There’s not as much venom as there is in football (unless you count “Get off my court.”)  Every opposing fans hates Zack Novak, but you know he’d be a fan favorite if he was on your team.

While Wolverine fans will (rightfully) say the Ohio State football game means more to them, the rivalry with MSU means more in pretty much every other sport, including men’s basketball and hockey. There isn’t a rivalry in the nation that compares to MSU/U-M across multiple sports.

Which brings us to the actual friggin’ game, the reason I’m writing this.

As poorly as Draymond Green has been against the Wolverines in his career, you’re a fool if you think his status for Sunday doesn’t mean much. However, given the fact he probably won’t be 100 percent, I’d be curious to see if MSU plays a smaller lineup. By all accounts, Green will play Sunday, although how effective he'll be remains to be seen. He’s not going to miss his last guaranteed game against U-M, especially a game he reportedly guaranteed to win.

In the previous meeting, U-M double-teamed Green/Derrick Nix/Adreian Payne about every time they touched the ball in the low post. U-M ran the same defense against Indiana on Wednesday and neutralized Cody Zeller for the most part. Given Green’s knee issue, preventing him from chasing Novak around the perimeter would seem like a potential option by playing Green at center. Plus, Green would be better apt to pass out of the post when double-teamed than Nix or Payne.

The star of the previous meeting was U-M freshman guard Trey Burke. While Keith Appling is the team’s top perimeter defender, I wouldn’t be surprised if Brandan Kearney saw more minutes defending Burke, especially if MSU goes with the smaller lineup. Kearney’s length gives him an advantage on the shorter Burke. Against Indiana, Burke had all sorts of fits when covered by the longer Christian Watford or Victor Oladipo.

As bad as MSU was offensively against Illinois, the defense is going to have to be much better than the previous game against U-M. The Wolverines shot a season-high 54 percent in the game, including 71 percent (17-for-24) on two-point shots. While U-M did go 6-for-21 on 3s, many of those were fairly open shots that just didn’t fall.

Another player to watch for MSU will be Branden Dawson. The last time these teams met, Dawson was coming off a horrible performance at Northwestern and only played 12 minutes in Ann Arbor. Now, Dawson is coming off his three best performances in Big Ten play, averaging 14 points on 61 percent shooting and he had 13 rebounds (seven offensive) against a small Illinois lineup Tuesday. Dawson’s biggest issue has been his defense. But one would think it should be better the second time around against the Wolverines.

There’s not as much talk about this game compared to the first meeting, but this still is just the eighth time in history that these two teams will be ranked when they meet. There isn’t nearly as much attention on this game outside of the Great Lakes State, because of the Super Bowl, but for the fans within the state’s borders, the Super Bowl is merely dessert following a game that means a whole lot more.

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