Wolverines, Spartans play in-state rivalry for Big Ten title

Wolverines, Spartans play in-state rivalry for Big Ten title
March 16, 2014, 12:00 am
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Vinnie Duber

It’s a rivalry so nice, they just had to play it thrice.

Michigan and Michigan State collide Sunday afternoon for the third time this season, and this time a Big Ten Tournament championship is on the line.

For Tom Izzo, it might as well be a holiday. Or even a double holiday.

“We got an opportunity to play them. I told my players, we've got to play three games here. I thought that was important that we get games under our belt, and we play three days, and shazam, we get to play our rival,” Izzo said Saturday. “You know, so it's Fourth of July and Christmas. You get both.”

The Spartans head into the championship bout the winners of two straight over Northwestern and Wisconsin, the latter a semifinal win in which the green and white displayed the kind of full-strength dominance the college basketball world has been waiting for all season. Michigan State finally looked like that team that opposing coaches warned of: a healthy and experienced juggernaut that could run roughshod through the NCAA tournament.

[MORE: Are these the full-strength Spartans we've been waiting for?]

The Wolverines, the conference’s regular-season champions, are also winners of two games in this conference tournament, taking down Illinois and Ohio State. No, the team that won more Big Ten games than anyone else didn’t look as dominant as its in-state rival, winning those two games by a combined four points. But Michigan has its sights set on an NCAA tournament title to go along with its other trophies, and its “survive-and-advance” style wins in this tournament are just the kind it will need to pull off starting next week.

So who will it be Sunday? Extremely recent history says Michigan has the advantage. Why? The Wolverines won the two regular-season meetings with the Spartans, emerging victorious in both East Lansing and Ann Arbor. But no one is thinking that means a surefire win for the maize and blue down in Indy. This is a good rivalry because these two teams are both really, really good.

“I think a rivalry is a better rivalry when they're in the same state. You can have some good rivalries that aren't, but when they're in the same state, they are,” Izzo said. “And I think both coaches have respect for one another. I'm not going to get into whether we like them or they like us or whatever because I always get asked that. But there's a respectful rivalry now because both teams are good and both teams are playing for a lot.”

[RELATED: Wolverines top Buckeyes, but both teams build tourney momentum]

Michigan State opened some eyes Saturday against Wisconsin, making things look easy on the offensive end thanks to a host of now-healthy contributors. But to think that offensive efficiency alone will take down the Wolverines is misguided. Perhaps there’s no Big Ten team that can score with as much as potency as Michigan.

No, to win the Spartans will need to crank it up on defense. It’s lockdown defense that’s flustered the Wolverines in their first two games in this tournament, with both the Illini and Buckeyes using stifling defense to erase double-digit second-half leads.

Still, though, that wasn’t enough for those opponents. Michigan won both games thanks to clutch plays and unsuccessful last-second shots on the other end. Friday it was Tracy Abrams’ floater falling short. Saturday it was the ball flying out of Aaron Craft’s hands on a 3-point attempt.

[MORE: Illini make furious comeback, can't finish off Wolverines]

“You look at so many of our games down the stretch here, they've ended just like this and the ball keeps bouncing our way,” Michigan head coach John Beilein said Saturday. “You only can have that type of luck if you have guys like these guys sitting next to me. They make enough smart plays to keep you in the game, and some games the ball will just bounce your way. ... Now we move forward and try to win it all tomorrow.”

So here we are. These were the two teams that were the best in the conference through the first half of the season. When they met back on Jan. 25, they were the last teams remaining with unblemished conference records. Michigan used that game as a launchpad to a regular-season championship. Michigan State saw it start a bumpy 5-7 finish to the regular season as the injuries kept on coming.

Both these teams are locks for the NCAA tournament, and in that realm the only thing still up for grabs is seeding. So Sunday’s game is truly being played for bragging rights between two heated rivals. Bragging rights and a very big trophy.

The championship game of the Big Ten Tournament tips off at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.