EAST LANSING There is no fear in East Lansing, but the struggling Spartans know that their upcoming game with Michigan will not be another gift-wrapped blowout.
“The balance of power has definitely evened out,” Michigan State forward Adam Ballinger said. “I”m sure that they feel like they have a great opportunity to win here and they should.”
The Spartans have won the last seven games against the Wolverines, and the last six have been blowouts, including a humiliating 114-63 loss two years ago.
But graduation and early departures to the NBA have whittled down the talent pool for coach Tom Izzo.
This year”s inexperienced and often injured Michigan State team has struggled to meet its expectations. After starting the year at No. 15, the team is precariously close to last place in the Big Ten.
The Spartans (11-8) can”t afford to lose many more games if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament.
But they really can”t afford to lose this rivalry game, especially considering that this will be their only crack at the Wolverines all year.
“This game is for all the bragging rights,” said freshman and Indiana-native Chris Hill, who got a crash course in the rivalry from his mentor, Marcus Taylor a Lansing native. “Since we only play once, the winning team”s fans are going to talk about it all year, so we have to win this one.”
Michigan State”s primary concern in the big game is a familiar problem for Michigan as well foul trouble.
“Michigan has some real weapons in the front court,” Ballinger said. “If it means giving up a layup, than that”s what we have to do.”
That”s hardly the rough and tough attitude of Michigan State”s championship teams.
But this season”s team has been softened by injuries. Six-foot-nine junior Adam Wolfe is out for the year with a torn hamstring, Ballinger is playing at “80 percent” and Izzo says Jason Andreas” tailbone less than 80 percent.
That leaves the Spartans and the Wolverines with just one healthy scholarship player over 6-foot-7 apiece.
Things have gotten so desperate in Spartyville that the football team”s freshman quarterback Aaron Alexander has joined the team to build depth in practice.
“He”s crazy,” Ballinger said. “He”s jumping around and fouling everybody but that”s a good thing for us.”
Michigan State still holds a home-court edge, but the air of invincibility that surrounded the Breslin Center is gone, thanks to a 64-63 upset by Wisconsin on Jan. 12 that ended the Spartans” 53-game home winning streak.
“We learned it”s not automatic,” Taylor said. “We can”t just suit up and expect to win because we are at home.”