By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – When Michigan State soundly defeated Michigan in the finale of the Big Ten tournament Sunday, the “I told you so” party started immediately. All season long, the Spartans struggled to get healthy. All season long, fans lamented how the team would be a Final Four favorite once again if it could just stem the tide of injuries.
On Sunday, the Spartans certainly showed that potential. They had been swept by Michigan in the regular season, and that series put them at 2-6 against the Wolverines in the team’s last eight meetings. Sunday demonstrated Michigan’s State capabilities, and it showed Michigan’s weaknesses.
The Spartans rebounded from a frustrating regular season in which they did not win two straight after Jan. 21. After a much more consistent season and fewer hard-to-explain losses, the Wolverines finished short in the tournament.
Does that justify Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s tweet that Michigan’s wins were flukes?
It is an intriguing idea. Nationally, most expected that Michigan State would be better than Michigan this season. The Wolverines were losing Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA draft. As it turned out, the team also lost Preseason All-America selection Mitch McGary, who turned in pivotal performances – including three double-doubles – in the 2013 NCAA tournament as the Wolverines stormed all the way to the national championship game. McGary had been averaging 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in eight games this season before getting hurt.
This regular season, Michigan built on the momentum from the deep run it made last March, and Wolverines played consistently well enough to defeat what was still a fairly formidable Michigan State team twice – once at home, once in East Lansing. Again, the Wolverines have won six out of the last nine matchups between the teams.
Does the fact Michigan lost the final one of three games these season make Michigan State indisputably better? While it is hard to evaluate how strong the Spartans are currently based on their regular season record (because of those injuries), it is enlightening to consider the regular season resume of the Wolverines. Michigan lost seven games. Four of those losses came against 1-seed Arizona, 2-seed Wisconsin and 3-seeds Iowa State and Duke.
By calling Michigan’s wins over Michigan State flukes, one essentially says Michigan never would have defeated Michigan State had not the Spartans dealt with injury issues. I’m not sure that is the case.
What is so wonderful about March Madness, of course, is that we could see yet another rematch. The in-state rivalry could pop up again if both Michigan and Michigan State make it to the Final Four.
While unknown teams emerge as surprises every year and upsets inevitably abound, both the Wolverines and the Spartans will have some established competition to weather down the stretch and get to Arlington, Tex.
Even as a No. 2 seed, Michigan has its work cut out for it in a loaded Midwest region. Depending on how the games play out, the Wolverines could face Texas and Duke to even get to the Elite Eight. The Longhorns knocked off 2-seed Kansas in the regular season. Duke bested the Wolverines in the regular season and has the nation’s best player in Jabari Parker and one of its most respected coaches in Mike Krzyzewski. If Michigan survives, it could encounter undefeated Wichita State, defending national champion Louisville or always dangerous Kentucky.
In the East region, 4-seed Michigan State will most likely need to get past 1-seed Virginia (toppled Duke in the ACC tournament) to advance to the Elite Eight. Once there, the Spartans will probably contend with either Villanova (always solid under Jay Wright) and streaking Iowa State, which just won its first Big 12 tournament since 2000.
Neither road is an easy one, to be sure. The Spartans certainly seem to be peaking at the right time, but the Wolverines are hardly entering tournament play in a slump. I would not call Michigan’s wins flukes – not when the Wolverines have had Michigan State’s number in recent years, not when the Spartans entered the tournament hungry to avenge those losses and reclaim their title as the Big Ten’s best, not when it is already exceedingly difficult for any team to beat another three times in a season.
Ideally, of course, Michigan and Michigan State will both make the Final Four, and then any debate will settle itself.