The Michigan men’s basketball team will only get one shot — one opportunity — at asserting control over its home state this year, when No. 10 Michigan State comes to town Saturday for the rivals’ only regular-season meeting.

The Wolverines (7-3 Big Ten, 17-6 overall) lost themselves Tuesday in a blowout loss to No. 22 Indiana, when the mood all changed after the Hoosiers’ 25-0 run to end the first half. The Wolverines showed few signs of life thereafter, but, according to junior forward Mark Donnal and junior guard Derrick Walton Jr., have done their best to snap back to reality.

The Spartans (6-3, 19-4) represent one of the Wolverines’ toughest challenges to date, especially given their play over the last three games.

“This Michigan State team, the way they’re playing right now, is I think as good as they’ve played in the last couple years,” Beilein said. “Denzel Valentine at the point guard is a big issue for everybody to deal with.”

Valentine is averaging 18.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game for the Spartans, and Beilein could only joke when asked who the Wolverines’ best defensive matchup is against him.

“Certainly not Mark Donnal,” Beilein said.

Whoever does draw the assignment — likely junior forward Zak Irvin — will be tasked with containing a likely candidate for the Naismith Player of the Year Award. Containing Valentine without over-helping, given how well the Spartans shoot from 3-point range, will be key.

Things only grow harder for Michigan matchup-wise against the Spartans, but they do catch a break — Michigan State’s Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. is battling plantar fasciitis in his right foot and is unlikely to play, giving the Wolverines one fewer offensive threat to deal with around the perimeter.

It’s the inside game that concerns Beilein the most, however, as Matt Costello, the Spartans’ fiery center, has experience and strength few can match in the low post.

Michigan lost both rivalry matchups last season, including one without senior guard Caris LeVert. A reporter asked Walton on Friday what playing in the game would mean to LeVert, who only gets one shot to beat the Spartans in a regular-season game. LeVert has missed nine consecutive Big Ten games with an undisclosed leg injury, but Beilein said Friday he had continued to make progress recently and did not rule out an appearance.

Walton opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come out.

“I can’t describe it,” Walton said eventually. “It’s his last go-around. … This one, personally, means a lot to him, but he’s going to make the best decision for himself.”

For his part, Walton won’t have it. He admitted that emotions could play a role Saturday, but on the surface he looked calm and ready to move his team past its Tuesday miscues and recent rivalry struggles.

Out with a sprained toe, he was forced to watch last season as the Spartans charged to an 80-67 win at Crisler Center. Michigan, looking to avoid a second straight home loss, will have its backs to the ropes Saturday, and Walton seems intent to capture the moment now that he’s healthy.

“It hurt,” he said of watching from the sidelines last season. “I’m going to make sure my presence is felt tomorrow.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.