AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR (AP) — Michigan State is in the midst of its longest winning streak against rival Michigan since the glory days of the Tom Izzo era.
The Spartans have won five straight, a run so long that players such as junior point guard Tum Tum Nairn don’t know what it is like to lose to the Wolverines.
“Wanna keep it that way,” Nairn said Monday.
Michigan State (14-9, 6-4 Big Ten) appears to be getting better at a good time, increasing its chances of playing in a 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament, entering Tuesday night’s game at Michigan (14-9, 4-6) where animosity might fuel the home team.
“For some reason, you just don’t like them,” Wolverines sophomore forward Moritz Wagner said.
The feeling is mutual.
“Hate would be a bad word, but you can’t like your rivals,” Izzo said. “That would be illegal, un-American.”
Nairn, who is from the Bahamas, and Wagner, who hails from Germany, learned a lot about the emotionally charged series after arriving on campus. Lately, the Spartans have been teaching Michigan the tougher team usually wins. Michigan State’s winning streak is its longest since earning a school-record eight victories in a row from 1998 to 2002.
During that streak, Izzo led the Spartans to a national championship, three straight Final Fours and four consecutive Big Ten titles. He may not be able to take his current team to similar heights, but with freshman Miles Bridges approaching his potential and his surrounding cast improving, the Hall of Fame coach likes what he is seeing.
“We are starting to come together,” Izzo said. “We’re playing better, but we still have such a long way to go if we want to be a real good team.”
The Spartans ended a three-game losing streak by beating the Wolverines 70-62 on Jan. 29 at home and won at Nebraska by 11 points on Thursday night.
Bridges is leading the way. He is averaging team highs with 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, primarily making shots with his left hand while showing he can shoot with his right, too. And behind the 3-point line, he is a threat to score.
“Miles Bridges goes both ways, finishes with both hands and the fact that he’s now an elite 3-point shooter, it’s a really tough guard,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “We’re going to have to give a lot of help with him.”
On the other end of the court, the Spartans don’t plan to leave Nairn or freshman point guard Cassius Winston alone against Derrick Walton. The senior point guard scored 19 of 24 points in the second half of the last setback at Michigan State and followed that up with 25 points, one shy of his career high, in a loss to the Buckeyes.
“Since our game, maybe before, he’s playing at another level,” Izzo said. “He’s playing the best basketball of his career and we’re going to have to limit him somewhat.”
The Wolverines, though, have not had many players match Walton’s intensity. Too many of them simply don’t seem to be following Walton’s lead.
“It’s on us to make up our minds and join him on his focus level, his energy level and urgency level,” Wagner said. “He’s doing a great job of carrying us right now.”
If Walton doesn’t get some help soon, his team may not reach its goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament with a road-heavy schedule to close the regular season. Michigan is 0-6 on opponents’ home courts this season and has lost nine straight since winning Feb. 10, 2016, at Minnesota.
“We really got to bounce back now,” Beilein said. “We have eight games left, five on the road. We’re not going to survive if we don’t have an incredible resolve moving forward.”
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