BY JOE SMITH
Daily Sports Editor
Published January 30, 2002
Michigan coach Tommy Amaker doesn"t like horror films at least none featuring Michigan and Michigan State.
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The new coach hasn"t watched the Spartans" 91-64 drubbing of Michigan at Crisler Arena last year, or the painful sequel (78-57) at the Breslin Center.
In fact, he"s only seen bits and pieces of previous games between the two rivals.
But Amaker doesn"t need to watch. Everyone from administrators, coaches and players to the neighborhood mailman have helped the new coach learn about the state of the rivalry.
"We haven"t faired too well," Amaker said yesterday with a shy grin. "It hasn"t been much of a rivalry as of late."
Quite an understatement considering the fact that the Spartans have won the past seven games with the last six Michigan State wins coming by an average margin of 25 points. The competitiveness of the once-storied rivalry has more closely resembled Duke-Davidson barnburners.
But Amaker also knows that a win tonight can be a huge statement for the team and the program, a step in the right direction toward making a trip to Breslin something to be excited about instead of feared.
"We"re confident that we"re going to make this a competitive rivalry," Amaker said.
Amaker talks about the important first step of gaining respect and credibility. He has gained the respect from Michigan State coaches with his recruiting success and relationship-building within the state. But a lot of credibility is gained on the hardwood, and another blowout loss could be costly while a win could be priceless.
And this time, Michigan players actually believe that a win is possible, and that turning the tide on the rivalry isn"t that far away.
Michigan State (2-4 Big Ten, 11-8 overall) lost stars Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph to the NBA Draft over the summer, and the wheels have just kept falling off this season for the defending Big Ten champions.
"We"ve lost three Big Ten games in the last 30 to 40 seconds," Izzo said. "We"ve found some ways to lose, and in past years we found ways to win.
"I think we"re just one step off from being a very good team."
But injuries haven"t helped the cause.
Sophomore Adam Wolfe is out for the season, and junior forward Adam Ballinger will be playing at 85 percent. But if Jason Andreas can"t go due to a heavily bruised pelvic bone, Michigan State will be heading into battle with just six healthy scholarship players with freshmen playing a bulk of the minutes.
"I think we have a much better chance than last year," sophomore guard Bernard Robinson said. "There was almost nothing you can do about their talent last year, but I think our talent level this year is comparable.
"It"s about all the small things like turnovers and foul trouble and who can make their free throws."
Even the Spartans agree.
"The energy is different this time," Ballinger said. "It"s pretty obvious that the teams are more even, and that gets people excited."
This time around, there will only be a few certainties: Forward Aloysius Anagonye will commit nearly a foul-a-minute, Amaker will get an earful from the "Izzone," the Wolverines will have problems on the boards, and Izzo will celebrate his 47th birthday.
Whether Izzo receives another gift-wrapped birthday victory like he did last year will be determined by which team is tougher and if Michigan (3-4, 8-9) can stay poised in a tough road environment even when the Spartans make their inevitable run.
Robinson, a Washington D.C. native, said it didn"t take him long to become immersed in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. In fact, he said it only took a "friendly" bump from the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Anagonye in the teams" first meeting last year.
It won"t take Amaker very long either. But he"ll find out a lot about his team and his progress tonight.
"For us to do better, it could show that this could possibly be the rivalry everyone wants it to be," Amaker said.
And not another scary movie.