For the last decade, the Michigan and Michigan State men’s basketball rivalry has been one-sided, with the Spartans winning the last five matchups before this year.
But after the Wolverines’ stunning 61-57 upset against then-No. 25 Michigan State at the Breslin Center earlier this season, things may have changed.
The two teams are fighting to finish in fourth place in the Big Ten. Michigan State currently sits in the fourth spot. But the Wolverines, Penn State and Illinois are all only one game behind. If Michigan (8-9 Big Ten, 18-12 overall) beats the Spartans on Saturday afternoon, it owns the tiebreaker over both the Nittany Lions and Michigan State.
“We want to approach it the same because we want to feel like we’ve had that same intensity, same focus, same drive all year,” junior guard Stu Douglass said. “We don’t want to treat this game as some Holy Grail. It’s just any other type of game in the sense that we play for the next game.”
But with the Big Ten expected to receive between four to six bids to the NCAA Tournament this season, the Holy Grail may be the best way to describe this game for Michigan. Whoever wins Saturday’s contest at Crisler Arena remains in the hunt for a bid, while the loser will most likely be left out of the field.
Now that there are enormous stakes on the line, the rivalry may have been resurged.
“You really don’t like the other guy,” junior guard Zack Novak said. “You step on that court — there’s a strong dislike. It’s such a heated rivalry. That’s just the way it is. They don’t like us, we don’t like them. That’s the way it is with every rivalry.”
Earlier this season, the rivalry was brought back to light. As the final seconds ticked and Michigan owned an advantage on the scoreboard, the numbers “1,181” — the amount of days since Michigan State had lost to the Wolverines in football or basketball — began to fade off the chests’ of four fans.
As those numbers had faded, the rivalry between these two teams simply grew. Michigan shot 50 percent from the field in the first matchup and used Novak’s team-high 19 points to push the upset bid.
Michigan State has not reentered the top-25 rankings after that game. The Spartans followed their loss to the Wolverines by getting blown out by Big-Ten bottom dweller Iowa in Iowa City. For a team that was ranked No. 2 at the start of the season, it certainly has not lived up to expectations.
Like every game for Michigan, to win it has to play consistent from beyond the arc. The Wolverines sank 10 of their 21 3-point attempts in the first game against Michigan State. The Spartans shot just 26 percent from 3-point land, which restricted them from keeping up with the Wolverines.
As the game at Breslin Center was high with emotion, so will this one.
“It might be a little hard to sleep (tonight),” sophomore guard Darius Morris said. “You’re just going to be sitting there, visualizing. You see yourself in the big games, doing big things, and I guess on their side, they’re going to be sleepless as well. They can’t wait. They can’t wait to get in here and get a chance at revenge. Like I said, emotions are going to be really high, and I think tonight everybody’s going to be pumped up.”