It’s the word associate head coach Phil Martelli used Friday to describe the energy surrounding the in-state rivalry between the Michigan men’s basketball team and Michigan State.
“It’s much more amped up than I had the idea of,” Martelli said. “It’s palpable.”
With both teams unranked heading into this season’s first duel, it could be just another Big Ten conference game.
But it’s not.
It’s a contentious rivalry, one charged with emotions and home-state ties. And this year’s matchup is no different. Both the Wolverines and the Spartans have a chip on their shoulders and something to prove.
The energy will be tangible throughout Breslin Center as the fans pile in, radiating through TV screens and into living rooms all across the country. The matchup has a physical presence that undeniably affects the players and coaches fighting the rivalry war.
Michigan’s been on a hot streak, taking down two conference opponents and is currently resting atop the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Michigan State is capping off a five-game homestand and looking for one more after winning the first four matchups.
“(Thursday) when we started our preparation, you could feel that it was a little bit more intense,” graduate guard Joey Baker said. “… You really want to beat the guys up the road.”
But more so than just this season, Saturday’s game has bigger implications. The Wolverines haven’t won at the Breslin in four years — and have won just three away games in 21 tries at East Lansing since 1998. No one on Michigan’s roster has ever notched a win in the Breslin.
And the Wolverines are clearly aware of that. It fuels their approach to the rivalry matchup.
“You better go in there with a boxer’s mentality,” associate head coach Phil Martelli said. “And there’s no boxer out there that hasn’t walked into one of their bouts and didn’t have it in their head ‘I am going to get hit’. So our players have to realize they are going to get hit. And at that point in time they have two choices. They can cover up. They can cover up and cower up, or (they) can hit back.”
Michigan wants to hit back. It wants to continue its newfound dominance in the Big Ten. It wants to hold bragging rights — at least until the Spartans come to Crisler later this season.
The Wolverines know it isn’t going to be easy. With major roster turnover from last season, most of the players on the squad have never experienced the rivalry matchup before. It’s something they’re trying to prepare for. But imitating the palpable energy of the Breslin Center is nearly impossible.
When asked about the practice plans for the team, specifically freshman guard Dug McDaniel’s ability to manage the rivalry as the new starting point guard, Martelli was quick to point out that impossibility.
“I don’t know if he’s ever played on a court that’s shaking when he’s dribbling the ball off the floor,” Martelli said. “Like how do you prepare for that? How do you tell somebody that that’s real? But it’s real.”
That inexperience could prove costly for Michigan. The Wolverines could fall back into the patterns that plagued them in their worst loss of the season to Central Michigan — patterns they’ve since worked so hard to remedy.
But for players like junior center Hunter Dickinson and junior forward Terrance Williams II, who have experienced the rivalry and have bought into the boxing mentality, they’re hungry for a win. And with it, to start rewriting the legacy of Michigan’s record in the Breslin Center.
“I wasn’t expecting to go in and get applauded out there,” Dickinson said of the rivalry game after beating Penn State Wednesday. “They don’t like us and we don’t like them. It’s not like I was going in there expecting kumbaya with the fans.”
Saturday’s matchup is the best of college basketball. It’s a rivalry fans and players alike live for. And with the boxer’s mentality, the Wolverines believe they’ve found their opening into victory.
The Spartans will punch, and they’ll punch hard. They’ll harness the palpable energy of Breslin Center like they’ve done so many times before. What matters most for Michigan is how they respond. Will they fold, or punch back?
Martelli believes the odds are in his team’s favor.
“I’m betting on hitting back.”