For the first time since the Fab Five roamed the Ann Arbor streets, the Michigan men’s basketball team seems to have a leg up, or at least be on par with its in-state rival, Michigan State. Just 60 miles separate the two top-10 teams, and with a pair of the nation’s top coaches — Michigan’s John Beilein and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — both programs should be perennial contenders for years to come.
The Spartans, tied with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings, hold a one-game lead over the Wolverines, making Tuesday night’s tussle inside the Breslin Center even more important.
Tensions should be high come 9 p.m. in East Lansing, and two Spartans — center Adreian Payne and guard Keith Appling — have experienced the intensity of the rivalry over the course of their past two years on campus. After Michigan swept the Spartans in the juniors’ freshmen seasons, the programs split last year’s contests. Payne, an Ohio native, and Appling, a Michigan native, should know a fair share about this rivalry, right?
The Daily sat down with the players at Big Ten Media Day in October to find out.
The Michigan Daily: You were three-way champions of the Big Ten last year. Are you looking to get it all to yourself this year?
Adreian Payne: Yeah, hopefully we can pull this out this year to ourselves and I think that’s what everyone’s goal is — to try to win the Big Ten. We won it last year, but we split it. I think this year we’re going to try to, you know, bring it home.
TMD: What did you learn from rooming with someone like Draymond Green? (Green, one of Michigan State’s most heralded athletes of all time, graduated last year and is now playing for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.)
AP: I just learned more of, you can say, things off the court. You know, paying bills on time, things like that. Just life-learning lessons you will take with you every day.
TMD: (Senior center Derrick Nix) went through that legal stuff at the beginning of the offseason. (Nix was arrested, jailed and pled guilty to two counts of drug possession). Do you think that helped him because now he’s a captain? Do you think that helped shaped the leader that he’s turned into?
AP: I think that that helped him a lot as far as sometimes maybe you’ve gotta get knocked down, you know, hit rock bottom before you realize that you have to change and learn that people look up to you and things like that. I think that opened his eyes.
TMD: Growing up in Ohio, was it easy for you to come here and hate Michigan?
AP: Growing up in Ohio, I never really watched basketball, so I really never had rivalries or anything big on Michigan or not. Just coming up here and going to Michigan State, it informed me to have a rivalry against Michigan. I didn’t grow up in the family atmosphere and the tradition of Michigan State. Coach Izzo has grown on me, so it’s kind of hard not to have that rivalry.
TMD: What’s it going to be like this year, with both teams being top-15 preseason teams, because that’s not something that’s happened recently?
AP: We really don’t focus on that, but we’ll come out every day and use it for fuel and just go out and play hard every day.
TMD: What do you remember about last year’s two games against Michigan?
AP: You know, I don’t really want to talk about that.
TMD: Michigan State might be flying a little more under the radar than normal. Does that put a chip on your shoulder?
Keith Appling: I wouldn’t say so because last year we flew under the radar tremendously and we were able to win the Big Ten championship, so that’s not really one of the things we worry about.
TMD: Draymond was the face of Michigan State basketball, and now Izzo’s been pointing at you a lot. Do you feel any pressure to fill his shoes, even a little bit?
KA: I don’t feel pressure at all because, at the end of the day, this is what I signed up for. I’ve just got to be prepared to do whatever I can to help my team win and be successful in the Big Ten.
TMD: You grew up in Michigan. Is this the best you ever remember Michigan and Michigan State being at the same time?
KA: (Laughter) Yeah, because there’s a lot of talent on both teams, so when we step out on that floor, it’s going to be blood, sweat and tears. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a hard-fought game.
TMD: What do you remember about the two games last year?
KA: I remember they were some hard-fought games. The one in Ann Arbor, it was a tough one. They played hard, we played hard, it was a back-and-forth game throughout the whole 40 minutes, but they were able to come out with the win because they were the better team on that given night. But in the Breslin (Center), we were kind of able to repay them a little bit. It was fun, that’s what it’s all about.
TMD: Do you have many family members who are Michigan fans who get in your ear around that time?
KA: Nah, not really. Even if they were Michigan fans, now that I’m Michigan State, they’re Michigan State. They don’t really bother me too much in the season anyway, so that’s not one of the things I have to worry about.