In rivalry game, Beilein cautions against overemphasis

Friday, January 12, 2018 - 10:35pm

Michigan will play another game at noon Saturday.

Just another game.

At least that’s Michigan coach John Beilein’s perspective as his team gets set to head to East Lansing to battle in-state rival No. 4 Michigan State.

“Sure, this is a great game,” Beilein said. “We’re not going to judge our season’s success whether it’s one game or two games. We’re going to judge it on ‘Did we compete for the Big Ten Championships and did we make the NCAA Tournament. And who’s playing last at the end of the year.’ 

“I try to look at this broad picture of college basketball and don’t get too much into one game over another.”

Rivalry aside, this game provides the Wolverines with another opportunity — of whic there already aren't many of — to garner a resume-boosting win. 

That won’t come easy, of course.

The Spartans are about as blemish-free as college basketball teams come. They shoot the three well, averaging 41.7 percent as a team. They defend at an elite level, ranking seventh nationally in KenPom Adjusted Defense. They couple NBA-caliber talent with unparalleled depth and experience. 

Michigan State is buoyed by sophomores Miles Bridges and Nick Ward and anchored by behemoth freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. The frontcourt is a matchup nightmare for a Michigan team whose frontcourt defense isn’t a definitive strength. Beilein has plenty to worry about without descending into the depths of rivalry banter.

“We’re playing a team, which I believe is the No. 1 team in the country,” Beilein said. “You got a great — not good — a great coaching staff, a great atmosphere. It’s certainly a great opportunity for us, but a huge challenge.”

Michigan State’s frontcourt strength could be the final straw in placing freshman forward Isaiah Livers in the starting lineup over fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. Livers has scored in double figures in each of his last three games, while providing key defense on opposing forwards. Beilein offered a hint at the move, while still noting the perils of giving a freshman his first start of the year on the road in Breslin Center.

“We’ll look into that,” Beilein said. “That’s a possibility.

“If we start Isaiah, we’ll find out (if he can handle the atmosphere), won’t we? It is a unique thing that not everybody’s ready for all the time.”

But while Beilein focuses on the Xs and Os — and away from the controversy-grabbing quotes — junior center Moritz Wagner knows the importance of this matchup, even if he grew up thousands of miles from its epicenter.

“Well, you’ve got to understand, I’m not from Michigan. I’m not from this country,” Wagner said. “I know how much this means to fans, and I know how much this means to people that are from here, and our teammates.”

Wagner says he talked to Derrick Walton Jr. this week — a Michigan native — who re-emphasized the importance of this game to his former teammate.

“I think he’s very happy about the win last year,” Wagner joked.

The reality of sports, though, is that few view them with the practicality of Beilein’s broad view. This game is just one more in a long season, but to so many it means much more. There is emotion involved. There are recruiting implications. There are bragging rights aplenty. There is a storied history, and history to be made. All of that matters beyond the realm of a singular win or loss.

Beilein’s counterpart, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, has long been vocal about his distaste for the Wolverines. For Beilein, his animosity is noted, if unprovocative.

“He doesn’t like us,” Beilein said. “I’m not a hater. I love Michigan, I don’t hate any other team. I love Michigan.”