Behind Enemy Lines: Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant

By Jacob Gase, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 3, 2015

On the heels of a dominant victory over defending Big Ten champion Penn State, the Michigan women’s basketball team will enter Crisler Center on Sunday with a chance to capture its biggest victory of the season against an in-state rival.

No. 24 Michigan State, which also held a share of the Big Ten title last season, comes to Ann Arbor on a two-game losing streak. After a strong 8-3 start to the season, the Spartans dropped their first two conference matchups to unranked opponents, Northwestern and Indiana.

It will be no easy task for Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant to right the ship. On New Year’s Day, the Wolverines (1-1 Big Ten, 9-4 overall) dropped a season-high 89 points and played perhaps their most spirited game of the season in coach Kim Barnes Arico’s first-ever win against the Nittany Lions. The upcoming contest with the Spartans, which always takes on a special meaning for players and coaches on both sides, has all the makings of a shootout.

Both teams operate with a combination of young talent and experienced veterans. On the experienced side, Michigan senior forward Cyesha Goree, who has posted five straight double-doubles, will have her hands full with Michigan State’s Becca Mills, another senior who stands 6-foot-4.

The Wolverines have shown they can rely on young shooters like freshman guard Katelynn Flaherty and sophomore guard Siera Thompson to do some damage from the outside, but the Spartans boast one of the most electric young players in the country in redshirt sophomore Aerial Powers. The 6-foot forward averages a double-double per game, with 18.8 points and 12.1 rebounds.

Merchant’s struggling team certainly faces a tough test at Crisler on Sunday. But in her eighth season at Michigan State, she knows a thing or two about winning rivalry games, and she has all the pieces to crush Michigan’s momentum.

The Daily sat down with Merchant at Big Ten Media Day in October to discuss a variety of topics, including her young superstar, her expectations in the revamped Big Ten, and her unique perspective on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.

The Michigan Daily: Last year, Aerial Powers made the All-Big Ten team as a redshirt freshman, and she’s on the preseason All-Big Ten team this year. How important has her immediate success been for her team?

Suzy Merchant: The thing that makes Aerial unique is that none of that stuff, as great as it sounds, really matters to her. She’s a very driven kid. She’s in the gym two, three times a day working on her game. She has big dreams for her team and her teammates. She doesn’t get caught up in those accolades. She’s a very grounded kid, and that comes from her upbringing. She knows one person doesn’t win a championship — a team does.

TMD: Your team made a strong run in the Big Ten and in NCAA tournament last season. Do you expect similar results from this year’s team?

SM: From our perspective, we start every year to win a Big Ten title. Our team probably was one that people didn’t pick to win last year, especially with two freshmen in the starting lineup that led us in scoring. It’s a group of kids that faced a lot of adversity — we lost our point guard for the last two months of the season, so we had to play that by committee, which is never a good thing on paper — but they just found a way, they came together as a group. So the expectation from being a Big Ten champion to this next year is no different, we certainly want that to happen.

TMD: Your team has had its share of struggles with the injury bug the last few seasons. Has that been less of a problem early in this new season?

SM: No, it’s not less of a problem, I wish I could say that. Last year, that was a big factor for us — we didn’t have a lot of kids out. This year we already have two ACL injuries and, before we even started practice, a couple concussions. I don’t know, it’s frustrating.

TMD: Before coaching at Michigan State, you were born in Traverse City, played at Central, and coached at Oakland, Saginaw Valley State, and Eastern. How have your Michigan ties shaped your perspective on the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry?

SM: I grew up in the state, and I think it starts there. When you’re from the state of Michigan, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is real, you truly understand it and you feel it. It’s in your blood. There’s not a lot of gray area — you’re either one side or the other. For me, I had two brothers that went to Michigan State, I grew up dreaming of playing at Michigan State, so I’ve always been a Spartan. Where I’m from, there are tons of Spartans up there. It’s a special place, and it’s a place that really fits who I am, where I’m from, and all the values that go with that. So I understand the rivalry, and I take it seriously. It’s a big deal to myself, who grew up here, it’s a big deal to our players, it’s a big deal to our fans.

TMD: With the two of you coaching on opposing sides for a couple years now, have you developed any kind of relationship with Kim Barnes Arico?

SM: I didn’t really know her until she got the job – I knew of her, but I didn’t know her. I think she’s done a really good job at Michigan. I think she’s going to continue to do great things there. The one thing I really do appreciate about her is her intensity and her competitiveness, how she gets her kids to play at a high level, in the same manner as she coaches. I have a great deal of respect for her and what she’s accomplished.