By: Martin Weiss
Tomorrow’s matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and No. 21 Michigan is just the latest installment of a rivalry that has become much closer, even though Michigan has only won once in East Lansing in the past ten years.
Saturday gives the Wolverines their best chance to win since the 2011 upset — the win that broke the 1,181 day streak of Spartan wins in both the football and basketball rivalries.
As Michigan fans watched Louisville cut the nets in the NCAA Championship, it felt like the end of an era. National Player of the Year Trey Burke and All-Big Ten selection Tim Hardaway, Jr. were both expected to declare for the NBA Draft. Forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary had fleeting professional thoughts as well.
Now, without Burke and Hardaway, Jr., and McGary out for the season with a back injury, Michigan is 14-4, undefeated in the Big Ten at 6-0 with upset wins over No. 10 Iowa and No. 3 Wisconsin — where they lost in overtime last year. But the biggest test for Michigan, both mentally and physically, is coming tomorrow.
Last year, Michigan had their biggest, most embarrassing loss of the season in the Breslin. After that, the Wolverines only lost four games, including the national championship.
“Last year, they jumped on us early,” Michigan point guard Spike Albrecht said. “We weren’t ready for it. We have to be ready for it this year.”
This season, coach John Beilein took note from a practice normally done by in-state rival Tom Izzo — scheduling a difficult non-conference schedule — to prepare for the rigors of the Big Ten. Traveling to hostile road environments at Duke and Iowa State, along with hosting the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats, gave the Wolverines experience in raucous conditions against high quality teams, like the situation they will be in at the Breslin.
Even with the non-conference preparation, Michigan still has its work cut out for them. Michigan State is ranked No. 3 for a reason. But, the Wolverines got a lucky break when Spartan forward Branden Dawson slammed his hand down on a table watching film, breaking it. He’ll join forward Adreian Payne (sprained foot) in street clothes.
Without Dawson, MSU will struggle to defend against the combination of Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas — the league’s leading scorer. Gary Harris, arguably the best player in the Big Ten (with Stauskas), will have his work cut out for him. He’ll have to guard Stauskas and still produce enough offense to offset the production lost by injury.
Michigan has all the motivation needed to play well in the Breslin after losing by 23 the last time it went to MSU. With the tough non-conference schedule, Michigan should be prepared for the environment. With the injuries to Dawson and Payne, Michigan has more firepower than the Spartans — at least right now. Michigan should win their second game in East Lansing this decade, bringing this great in-state rivalry that much closer.