Jacob Shames: A locker room a world away

Saturday, March 16, 2019 - 7:49pm

Xavier Tillman said he was "personally excited" to play for a Big Ten title.

Xavier Tillman said he was "personally excited" to play for a Big Ten title. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

CHICAGO — Kenny Goins sits back in his chair in the corner of the Michigan State locker room, fresh off his team’s methodical win over Wisconsin. The victory clinched the Spartans’ passage to the Big Ten Tournament final Sunday, and already, the focus has shifted to that game.

Except their opponent has yet to be determined.

Out on the United Center court, Michigan and Minnesota are warming up for their own semifinal matchup. The tunnel connecting the court and the locker room feels like a portal between two different worlds. On the court, there's a game in which anything could happen. In the locker room, that game has already taken place.

When a reporter asks Goins how he felt about the chance to play the Wolverines, he answers a reporter as if he was living in the former.

“Just excited to play for a championship.”

The next question?

“That’s PC talk right now?”

The implication, of course, being that there’s no way Michigan and Michigan State won’t meet for a third time on Sunday. No way one of the most intense rivalries in college basketball, which had decided one championship only one week ago, won’t decide another. No way the Wolverines won’t easily handle the Golden Gophers, the seventh seed in the tournament and a team Michigan had already swept in the regular season. No way the Spartans don’t want a chance to inflict more heartbreak on the Wolverines and beat them for the third time in three weeks.

“Just excited to play for a championship,” Goins says. Just excited to play for a championship. Championship Sunday, that’s what it’s all about.”

A different reporter shifts the discussion’s focus, asking Goins about the various “bumps and bruises” Michigan State has accumulated over the season.

“I feel great. We’re playing for a championship tomorrow.”

Goins gives a knowing grin.

But what about the challenge of preparing for an opponent for the third time of the season? Goins bats the question away before the reporter even finishes asking.

“Just playing for a championship. I don’t know who we’re preparing for yet.”

Well, now, they do. Michigan demolished Minnesota, 76-49, Saturday afternoon, in a game even more anticlimactic than the Spartans’ own semifinal. There’s no more playing coy about it. Round three between the two titans will officially take place Sunday at the United Center, and it looks to be even bigger than rounds one and two.

But before this was set in stone?

Senior guard Matt McQuaid repeats Goins’ phrase of choice twice. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman says he’s “personally excited” to play for a Big Ten Tournament championship, while reminding reporters that “last year, we lost at this time.” Tillman doesn’t say who the Spartans lost to. He doesn’t need to.

By the time it’s Nick Ward’s turn, people have caught on. A reporter informs the junior forward that all of his teammates are “just excited to play for a championship.” He asks Ward what he might say differently.

“I just want to win a championship,” Ward says. “I just want to win another championship, whether it’s Michigan or Minnesota. Either one.”

After just five minutes in Michigan State’s locker room, the collective reaction is, okay, sure.

“We’re gonna go shower and get ice and watch them for like a half, go back to the hotel,” Tillman says. “I mean, the eagerness is never really — I don’t have a preference on who we play, so it doesn’t really matter. We’re just gonna prepare.”

Tillman may say he wouldn’t rather see either Michigan or Minnesota. But after the Wolverines’ blowout comes to a merciful close, the United Center PA announcer quickly previews the game that is to come, closing by saying “there’s a Big Ten title on the line.”

Both worlds have collided. A Michigan fan in the crowd answers him:

“Yes, there is, baby. Revenge, revenge, revenge.”