With 42 seconds remaining, the Spartans down by 29 and Crisler Arena in full-on party mode, Tom Izzo called a timeout. The game was lost, long lost, but the coach’s message would not be.
So he gathered his young team in a huddle and let the crowd take care of the rest.
“I said if you don’t understand the rivalry, listen to the fans. Just listen to ‘em. That’s what it’s supposed to be,” Izzo said. “That’s what ours should be doing at our place, and what theirs should be doing at their place.”
The Michigan fans had been roaring all night long on Tuesday, basking in the satisfaction of the Wolverines’ blowout victory over Michigan State. Now Izzo wanted his team to absorb the moment as well, to face the heat of the rivalry and feel the burn of losing.
“I have too many guys that don’t understand it — and some of them should have, a couple from Michigan should have,” Izzo said, likely referring to freshmen Miles Bridges of Flint and Cassius Winston of Troy. “(Others) shouldn’t have. So I said, ‘Just understand it.’ When we tell you that it’s going to be different and it’s a different game, understand that.”
This was an initiation, a painful rite of passage for an underage Spartans squad into a no-holds-barred rivalry. It was a triumph of experience over talent – less than two weeks after talent had trumped experience in East Lansing – and a reminder of how hollow one can be without the other. Most of all, it was affirmation that certain teams are just better suited for certain moments.
“That was seniors against freshmen,” said Izzo. “That’s what it was. They took it to us and we did not respond very well. We’re going to have to get better. It was tough to see us not compete, that doesn’t happen very often. All the credit goes to them. They outplayed us in every aspect of the game.”
The final score read 86-57, Michigan’s most lopsided victory over Michigan State since another 29-point drubbing at Crisler Arena in 1996. It was a blowout almost from the get-go – “It started out bad and got worse,” Izzo would say – the Wolverines racing out to a 21-13 lead and never looking back. By halftime, the gap had grown to 55-29.
In a game in which Michigan State figured to have little to lose, the freshman-laden Spartans looked their age. They committed 21 turnovers and wilted in a hostile environment. Meanwhile, the Wolverines, their NCAA Tournament hopes hanging by a thread, leaned on a slew of upperclassmen and played with corresponding nerve. They shot 75 percent in the first half, including an astonishing 73 percent from deep.
If Izzo’s players seemed to shrink from the moment, Beilein’s licked their chops and attacked it.
“They were angry, they were junkyard dogs. That was the whole idea,” Beilein said, referencing a photo of a snarling Doberman he had shown his team earlier in the week. (‘I think it was a Doberman,” he clarified. ‘He had big teeth.’) “We had to go out there angry and play with that edge that we so desperately need.”
That hasn’t always been the case for the Wolverines this season, which partly explains their mediocre 15-9 record.
“I go into a game, I don’t know what to expect,” Beilein said. “You can be pretty consistent about guys (making) shots, but what type of edge are they going to play with? That’s hard. And is the edge too much that they get emotionally drunk during the game? You worry about that a little bit. But today was perfect. They were right there.”
That was no surprise, of course. Michigan had lost its last five games to Michigan State entering Tuesday’s contest, and only two of its core players – Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin – had ever notched wins over the Spartans.
“The last couple of years we’ve been trying like crazy (to beat them),” Beilein said.
They weren’t going to let another opportunity slip by — Walton, in particular. The senior guard tallied 20 points, eights assists and five rebounds, playing for much of the night like a man possessed.
“I haven’t celebrated a win over Michigan State since (Nick) Stauskas (Jon) Horford and (Jordan) Morgan,” Walton said, referring to the 2013-14 squad on which he was a freshman. “Being one of the leaders on this team and knowing that I helped lead a team to a win (over MSU), it means so much to us as a program. And as an in-state school, it feels great.”
That satisfaction was evident in Walton’s demeanor throughout the evening, particularly as Michigan began to pull ahead. When he wasn’t pumping up the crowd after a big play, he was slapping the floor on defense. When he wasn’t jawing at his opponents, he was smiling with his teammates. In any case, it was hard to blame him.
“Give Walton credit, I think he’s playing the best basketball of his career,” Izzo said. “I think this game was the most important thing in his life – and that’s what it’s gotta be. I don’t blame our freshman for that, I just don’t think they understand the intensity level. Nick (Ward) struggled, Josh (Langford) struggled and Cassius (Winston) really struggled.”
Including Miles Bridges, Michigan State’s freshman committed 14 turnovers. Michigan’s four starting upperclassmen – Walton, Irvin and juniors D.J. Wilson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman – combined for three. And it didn’t take long for that trend to take hold.
“We script our first four plays, we screwed up all four,” said Izzo. “We not only script them for two days, we script them the day of the game, we script them in the walk-through. And we screwed them all up. It’s a good learning lesson for all of us.
“That’s why you have upperclassmen.”
There wasn’t a more fitting line in Izzo’s stew of post-game comments. More than an admission of his team’s flaw, it was a recognition of his inability to fix it. Upperclassmen aren’t honed like a zone defense or sharpened like a baseline play. They are acquired purely through the passage of time, a luxury the 14-10 Spartans can no longer afford.
“Hopefully our freshman are going to grow a little bit,” Izzo said, “because this was the first time I thought they really, really struggled.”
That’s the silver lining for the Spartans. Tuesday’s defeat, though humbling in the present, will likely pay dividends down the road. The question is whether Michigan State can survive on its natural talent long enough for the acquired experience to catch up. If they can, and if it does, watch out.
Plenty of work lies ahead for Michigan, too. Still winless away from Crisler Arena (0-6) and very much on the tournament bubble, the Wolverines play five of their last seven games on the road. Their two home dates, meanwhile, are with No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 16 Purdue.
Beilein believes Michigan’s uncertain standing is part of what fueled its fast start on Tuesday night.
“Our kids are looking at this thing and they know…You’ve got (two) home games, five on the road. You’re not going anywhere if you don’t win some of these home games to prepare you for the road. I think they understand that,” he said.
But they also understood the magnitude of Tuesday’s game on its own. Forget the conference standings. Forget tournament implications. Michigan vs. Michigan State is a beast of a matchup unto itself. It takes familiarity to slay it.
“I don’t think it was a lack of effort,” Izzo said, defending his players’ competitiveness. “I think it was a lack of experience. I think it was a lack of understanding what has to be done in a rivalry game.”
For the veteran Wolverines, that wasn’t a concern. When Walton stepped into the team’s huddle before the opening tip, he locked eyes with Irvin, then sized up everyone else.
“If I gotta get you hyped for this game…” he said, and needed to say no more.