T he last time Michigan and Michigan State met in Crisler Arena was two years ago. The stands were filled with green and white as the cheers of “We own Crisler” drowned out the meager handfuls of Michigan fans in the arena. Michigan was humiliated on its own court while Jason Richardson, then a sophomore, and the rest of the Spartans tore the Wolverines to the tune of a 91-64 defeat. When the Spartans were up big in the second half, Richardson was bold enough to go for a 360 dunk on a fast break.
The ball clanked off the front iron and Spartans coach Tom Izzo was irate with Richardson on the sidelines. But it didn’t matter. The game was over, and it just added to the humiliation.
So why are the Wolverines treating Sunday’s rematch like it is just another game? Every player you talk to recites coach Tommy Amaker’s mantra – that it is just one more game in the conference. “A win’s a win in the Big Ten,” they say.
“The game’s a little heightened because they are rivals, but we are just going to go out there and play it like another game,” Michigan freshman Graham Brown said.
Who owns Crisler?
It was Jan. 10, 1998 the last time Michigan beat Michigan State. The Wolverines secured a 10-point victory at home against the Spartans. But in the last five years, Michigan State has handed Michigan eight consecutive losses.
The pinnacle of the Spartans’ domination came on March 4, 2000 when Michigan lost 114-63. The 51-point defeat was a complete degradation at the hands of its arch-rival.
The Spartans have humiliated the Wolverines both in East Lansing and in Crisler. But cheers of “Go Green, Go White” were heard all too often when Michigan State traveled to Ann Arbor.
“It is great to look up in the stands and see that cluster of Michigan State fans,” Michigan State fifth-year senior Adam Ballinger said earlier this season. “They are usually pretty loud, too. That kind of support really helps a lot.”
The Wolverines’ have had almost no home-court advantage, as Crisler has seemed more like a neutral site than Michigan’s home arena. The Spartans have had everything they could wish for as their fans made the trip down to Ann Arbor.
But this season things could be turning around. Sunday’s game has been sold out for weeks now, and Wednesday’s game against Minnesota saw almost 11,500 fans pack Crisler, as the lower bowl was packed with Maize Ragers standing in the aisles.
Sunday could be an opportunity for Michigan to retake Crisler – if its fans show up like they have been recently.
Izzo relishes the times he brought his team to Ann Arbor with a train of fans following the Spartans. But he knows the tide may be changing, and with it, the rivalry could be reborn.
Having fans travel “is a dream come true,” Izzo said. “I don’t think you are going to see that happen anymore. I think they’ve figured out how to sell tickets down there the right way.
“That was a period of time when they were in a down period. We did take advantage of that just like they would. I really think this rivalry is going to be back where all the fans and the media want to be because Tommy (Amaker) is going to do a good job there. Yet when our fans fill that arena, that’s as good as it gets.”
Narrowing the gap
The last half-decade of losing has not been indicative of the rest of the rivalry. Michigan is 88-64 against the Spartans in the history of their meetings, and the last time one team dominated the rivalry to such a degree, it was Michigan. The Wolverines won 12-straight meetings between the two in the 1920s.
Even Izzo, who has had Michigan’s number of late, tasted defeat at the hands of the Wolverines more than once. Because of the cyclical nature of the rivalry and the losses he faced early on at Michigan State, Izzo believes the rivalry is getting closer.
“We’ve dominated recently, and I was dominated in my first three years here,” Izzo said earlier this season. “I don’t usually forget where I came from. Everybody talks about the 20-25- point wins, but I was a part of about five 25-point losses. I see that rivalry getting better because they are going to be better. It is still a big game because it is your rival.”
The rivalry could indeed be getting better as Michigan is now the hot team. The Wolverines are sitting in first place in the conference at 5-0 and riding high on a 12-game win streak. Conversely, the Spartans are 2-3 in the Big Ten after an impressive nonconference season that included a win over Kentucky in Lexington.
The fact that Michigan is boasting one of its strongest teams in years and that the Spartans have struggled of late has to give the Wolverines confidence going into Sunday’s game. Izzo himself said the Wolverines are playing with confidence and admitted to how powerful a weapon that can be.
For the upperclassmen, who have never beaten the Spartans, this season’s matchup is as good an opportunity as they have had.
“For me, I’ve never beaten Michigan State, and this will be a good chance for me to beat them for the first time in my career,” swingman Bernard Robinson said. “That gets me going right there.”
Breath of freshman air
Earlier this season, Amaker’s Wolverines found themselves 0-6 and off to their worst start in school history. Then came the well-documented turnaround. The Wolverines have not lost a game since then and hold the nation’s second-longest win streak, behind only Oklahoma State.
A key to this turnaround was a bit of psychological manipulation by Amaker. After the sixth loss, Amaker gathered his troops and told them they would put the past behind them and start fresh.
Michigan has an opportunity to do this again. The Wolverines start three freshmen, who have never played Michigan State, and as Amaker said, do not bear the scars of those losses.
Michigan freshman Daniel Horton will see his first Michigan-Michigan State game Sunday when he suits up. He’s seen the Spartans play other teams, but has never watched a game between the two schools.
To some people, it would be insane to say the Michigan State game is just like any other.
But there is a certain method to the Wolverines’ madness.
They are staying close-lipped because that’s the best thing they can do right now. This is not just because Michigan wants to avoid giving the Spartans bulletin-board material, it is also a good idea because, psychologically, it is better for them to think of it as just another game.
Horton, when he was asked if the eight straight losses were weighing on his mind, said it best.
“It really doesn’t matter to me, because if you come in thinking, ‘We haven’t beat them in eight games,’ then you are going to be pressing to do things you can’t really do, (and) take shots you aren’t really supposed to be taking. You have to come in with a clear mind and clear focus, that if we do what we’ve been doing in the past 12 games, then we will be successful,” Horton said.
Michigan fans are showing up to Crisler in droves, the schools are in a fervor over the rivalry, the Wolverines have as good a team as they have had in years and the last time the Spartans traveled to Ann Arbor, they embarrassed Michigan.
Think it is just another game?