The Big Ten’s best rivalry returns on Saturday.
Over the previous decade, no two teams have flexed more dominance over the conference than Michigan and Michigan State. No team is more emphatically circled on the schedule for the Wolverines. No regular season game carries more meaning. No holds are barred.
Heading into the first iteration of this showdown on Jan. 5, there were a thousand question marks regarding the arrival of new coach Juwan Howard.
What was the rivalry going to look like under new leadership? How was Howard going to embrace the moment? Would he maintain composure or succumb to the grandness of the moment and the narrative written by two juggernaut programs up to that point?
In that early-January game, Howard answered many of the lingering questions … by receiving his first technical foul of the season.
After the referees missed a potential foul call on senior center Austin Davis following a drive to the hoop, Howard was livid at the lack of response from the officials. He stepped on the court, and the ref made a “T” with his hands, signaling a marked departure from the days of rivalry past.
In the previous Michigan era, former coach John Beilein was a resolute, composed figure on the sideline. The epitome of his program’s values.
On the other end of the sideline, Michigan State employed a more emotional firebrand to run its ship. Tom Izzo — the famed high-level game manager — argued and screamed at every available opportunity. In their demeanor, the two couldn’t be more different.
But Howard’s temperament on the sidelines is a marked departure from his predecessor.
“If there’s one thing I’m glad about Juwan, to be very blunt and honest with you, is John was so buttoned up that I look like a fool all the time,” Izzo said after his program’s win against the Wolverines. “And now both of us look like fools, it makes it an equal opportunity deal.”
Added Howard: “I’m going to back up my team for all 40 minutes of the ball game. That possession, I had seen enough. I saw a lot of contact. … But unfortunately it wasn’t called, so I got a little beside myself. I’m an emotional guy, and I’m going to always fight for my players.’
Howard provided a glimpse — however small — into the new era of the rivalry. The technical, along with the new direction Howard is taking Michigan men’s basketball, are laying the foundation for a new, epic chapter in the showdown.
Playing with a newfound passion and emotion on the sidelines is one thing, but picking the players to help you write the narrative is arguably the more important element.
Under Beilein, the Spartans held the clear recruiting advantage year in and year out. When one top-10 recruiting class fled to the NBA or graduated, another one quickly took its place. Beilein famously only sought the players that fit his system, often leading to less-than-elite groups of athletes.
But his ability to make more with less made the rivalry that much more exciting.
With Howard quickly amassing one of the Wolverines’ most highly-ranked recruiting classes in the last two decades, things are going to look a lot different when Michigan and Michigan State suit up in the future.
Poised and methodical versus athletic and emotional. It’s an oversimplification, sure, but an apt characterization of the two eras in Michigan basketball is beginning to form. And through the transition of these eras — one man and one program is here to stay.
“Juwan’s done a good job, done a great job there,” Izzo said after his first win against Howard. “So he will do a good job, but we’re not going anywhere. We’re not going anywhere.”