A mere two days before his team’s biggest game of the season, John Beilein started talking about how he was glad Michigan had gotten back from Minnesota a little earlier than usual. Then he talked about the challenge of a short turnaround. Then he thanked the operations staff for setting up the logistics so that 200 alumni could attend.
The reason 200 alumni were going to be at this particular game?
Oh, yeah. Only then did he talk about the next opponent: Michigan State.
Twenty-five seconds of his two-minute opening statement at Friday’s press conference. That was all Beilein devoted to his team’s biggest rival. Even when asked question after question about the Spartans, Beilein stressed that this game was meaningful to him just because of its implications in the Big Ten race, where the Wolverines are tied with Michigan State at the top.
“This is something all our kids are ingrained with,” Beilein said. “Not necessarily by me, but by the media and everything. … It means a lot to so many people for the bragging rights.
“And it’s one game at a time but it could be four times this year. You don’t know. So you’ve gotta just take it one day at a time and it’s an important, important game. And they are standing in the way of a Big Ten conference championship. Right? And so are several other teams. This is just another one of those teams.”
Pre-rivalry press conferences usually exude nervous energy dotted with trash talk. But Friday could have been any other afternoon in the Crisler Center media room. Michigan’s players were loose. The reporters were the only ones who acted like this one was different.
Even freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis — who once proclaimed he felt his team was better than No. 1 Duke — was relaxed.
“I looked up the history of the games and everything,” Brazdeikis said when asked how much he was looking forward to the game.
Brazdeikis then proceeded to talk about how this was probably the biggest game of the year — because of its implications for the conference. Then he described his favorite memories: Watching his friend, former Michigan wing Nik Stauskas, play in earlier iterations of the rivalry.
Not once did Brazdeikis mention that he hated the Spartans, or even that he thought his team was better. Beilein said he had nothing but respect for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, then went on a tangent about how they both take their families to the lake in the summertime. Junior center Jon Teske, too, only brought up hate in the context of respect.
“A lot of hate between the two teams,” Teske said. “I respect those guys. Very good team. Very well-coached.”
Of course, this will likely all change on Sunday. The last rivalry game the Wolverines played in, junior guard Zavier Simpson got into a scuffle with Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson. Players from both teams got involved, inviting a bevy of technical fouls and a chippy atmosphere that lasted the rest of the game. Against Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, and with the history involved between the two, it’s hard to assume Simpson will keep quiet.
But when Brazdeikis described the knowledge that Simpson and redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews — co-captains on this year’s squad — had imparted on them about the rivalry, it belied the fiery Simpson’s usual attitude. Michigan, they told Brazdeikis, is better when it treats every game the same, when it walks on the floor and sees the other team as a bunch of blank faces.
“The fans hype up the game bigger than it is,” Brazdeikis said. “I feel that it’s a regular-season game, I feel like to me it’s not bigger than Minnesota or any of the other games because at the end of the day, it’s about winning and it’s about us.”
To all the fans who hold so much stock in the rivalry, the Wolverines’ approach may seem blasphemous. But it’s worked — Michigan has won the last three games against the Spartans, including the Big Ten Tournament semifinals last year. And in the race for the Big Ten and beyond, the type of emotional roller-coaster that occupies these sorts of games often provides the recipe for an upset.
On Sunday, there will be 200 alumni and a sold-out crowd and millions of people tuning in across the country to see two top-10 teams with a history of hate go at it.
The Wolverines will try to see it as just another Sunday.