By Ashley Dunkak
ANN ARBOR (CBS DETROIT) – Upon the arrival of Tom Izzo as the head coach of Michigan State back in 1995, the Michigan basketball program languished in comparison for the next decade-plus, only making it to the NCAA tournament twice in the 12 years between the start of Izzo’s tenure with the Spartans and the start of John Beilein’s career in Ann Arbor.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Wolverines have been in the NCAA tournament four of Beilein’s six seasons, with the group on track to go again this season. Last year, Michigan made it all the way to the national championship game.
Relevant on a national scale, the Wolverines currently look even stronger in their own state. Between February 1998 and February 2010, the Wolverines went just 3-18 against the Spartans. Evidently, times change. Michigan has now defeated Michigan State in six of the last eight meetings between the teams. The Wolverines swept the season series this year, and they also did it in 2011.
An early Final Four favorite, Michigan State has dealt with a slew of injuries this season, and Beilein and the Wolverines know that defeating the Spartans hardly guarantees a conference championship or a lengthy run in the tournament.
To Beilein, though, Michigan’s win Sunday does mean Michigan is on the right track.
“Because of who they are and how solid they are and national championships and Final Four appearances like crazy over the last two decades, it says that we’re back,” Beilein said after the game. “Michigan’s back in so many ways, just being competitive at every level, and that’s – if you compete with Michigan State, then you’re competing with all the other top schools, and we hadn’t been there for a while, and it’s just good to be in that position.
“Consistency is the things that Wisconsin and that Michigan State and Ohio State, lately, have been able to do,” Beilein continued. “They haven’t had fall-offs. This is the Michigan goal right now – we’ve got to stay competing for Big Ten championships going forward. That’s when, just like they are – their kids don’t know what it’s [like not to go] to the NCAA tournament. That’s what we want.”
Sunday’s crowd wore almost exclusively maize and blue; green could be spotted here and there, but it was rare. Reporters after the game marveled that not so many years ago, a Michigan-Michigan State game in Ann Arbor would look like a home game for the Spartans. Now, it is a different story. The fans roared so loudly, so raucously, that at times they completely drowned out the public address announcer as he screamed the name of the Michigan player who had just scored. The atmosphere matched what one would expect from a perennial Top 25 team, and that excited environment seemed to demonstrate how far the Wolverines have progressed during the tenure of Beilein, who came on board in 2007.
None of this, of course, particularly concerns Michigan’s players at this moment. Beating the rivals is great, sure, but the Wolverines have other goals in mind.
“We’re excited about that, but we know that it’s not over yet,” said Caris LeVert, who kept Michigan afloat early with 14 points in the first half and finished with 23. “We’ve still got to win out, we’ve got to win the rest of our games, to put us in a great position to win the Big Ten.”
Nik Stauskas, the second-half hero who scored 21 of his 25 points in the last 20 minutes, who got so amped up after drilling yet another 3 that he pumped his fist one time, two times, three times, four times as Michigan State called timeout, brought a similarly focused perspective to the interview room after the game.
“It’s huge,” Stauskas said. “Not just because of the history but especially because of what we’re trying to achieve right now.”
Before that window between Izzo’s arrival in East Lansing and Beilein’s arrival in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines were also a basketball power. From 1984 to 1995, Michigan made the NCAA tournament in 10 of 11 seasons, and three times the team advanced to the national title game – and once, the Wolverines won.
That perennial-contender status is what Izzo has built at Michigan State. The Spartans have gone to the NCAA tournament 16 straight years and often fared extremely well, making it 11 times to the Sweet Sixteen, seven times to the Elite Eight, six times to the Final Four and twice to the national championship game – winning it once.
Certainly, the Wolverines have plenty more to aspire to, and Izzo’s legacy is not going anywhere. Likely, neither are the Spartans. That said — just maybe — the Wolverines might not be going anywhere either.
Just maybe, Beilein is right, and Michigan is back.