If you match up the rosters of the Michigan and Michigan State men’s basketball teams, well, they don’t match up.
The Spartans have a Player of the Year candidate in Miles Bridges, a potential top-five draft pick in Jaren Jackson Jr., dynamic scoring guards in Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford and a 6-foot-8, 245-pound behemoth at center in Nick Ward.
Bridges, Jackson and Langford were top-20, five-star recruits. Ward and Winston were top-50, four-star recruits.
Add to that the Spartans’ veteran bench, which has three seniors and two juniors who rotate in on a regular basis, and you’ve got seemingly one of the deepest teams in the country.
Michigan’s personnel, on the other hand, doesn’t jump off the page at you. Redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews and sophomore guard Zavier Simpson are the only top-100 recruits in the Wolverines’ starting lineup, but Matthews transferred out of Kentucky after barely seeing the court, and Simpson only came to Michigan because coach John Beilein couldn’t get Winston to commit to play in Ann Arbor.
But as they say, there’s a reason these games aren’t played on paper.
For the second time this season, the Wolverines beat Michigan State by double digits. For the second time this season, Simpson bested Winston, and the Spartans’ physical advantages all over the court weren’t enough to put Michigan away.
“It’s incredible that we were able to win that game,” said fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson. “We expected to go 2-0. We know we’re a really good team. We knew it was going to be a battle, but by no means are we surprised that we came out on top. In terms of memories, to go 2-0 against them in my final year is special.”
The confidence permeates through the team. You can see it in the Wolverines’ swagger.
This team is different than Michigan teams of the past. That’s been well documented. These Wolverines are tougher and more defensive-minded.
Robinson stood in the locker room Saturday and was asked, as he has been so many times, about that identity.
“They pride themselves on their toughness,” Robinson said. “And for whatever reason, people constantly question ours. It was time for us to answer the bell, and I think we did.”
He’s right, people do keep questioning it, because it’s so unusual for a Beilein-led team.
But it’s also a testament to just how good a coach Beilein is.
His offensive system that makes Michigan so hard to beat is still in place, but it was clear early on this season that the Wolverines didn’t have the offensive skillset of teams in the past.
If Michigan wanted to be as successful as it has been in recent seasons, it would have to do it in a different way.
It has, as Beilein’s team is one of the best defensive units in the country. With all of the mismatches they faced Saturday, they still held the Spartans to 64 points on 38-percent shooting.
Simpson shut down Winston. Livers and Robinson held Jackson to just 13 points, Langford and Ward were held to eight points combined and Matthews made life hard for Bridges despite the size advantage.
Beilein has shown, once again, that he’s capable of taking a bunch of under-the-radar players, molding them into a unit and winning lots of basketball games.
This season it’s with toughness and defense.
In past seasons it’s been with offensive firepower.
“It is a mental toughness and a physical toughness,” Beilein said. “But we’re not beating our chest about it. We’re just saying, ‘You know what, there’s a lot of ways to be tough, and we’re gonna be that.’ ”
There’s one more comparison that, prior to Saturday’s game, might have seemed lopsided to some: the coaching matchup.
Tom Izzo is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. He’s been to seven Final Fours and won an NCAA Championship with Michigan State in 2000.
Beilein has spent 40 years coaching basketball. He’s never won an NCAA Championship, and he’s been to only one Final Four in his career.
But Beilein beat Izzo on Saturday for the third time in a row. Four out of the last five seasons, his teams have gone as far or farther than Izzo’s in the postseason, and it’s always with less physical talent on his roster.
This isn’t to say Izzo is a bad coach. He isn’t.
But it’s time to start recognizing that Beilein is worthy of similar praise to what Izzo gets all the time.
Michigan beat Michigan State again Saturday. Beilein beat Izzo again.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Persak can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MikeDPersak