How did the game that had the potential to be one of the best in the history of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry turn into the varsity taking on the jayvees?
How did the No. 8 Spartans put a 75-52 whipping on the No. 4 Wolverines that actually was not as close as the final score indicated? That is a strange thing to say after a 23-point blowout. But MSU actually led by 31 when its coach, Tom Izzo, instructed his team to milk the 35-second clock with about five minutes remaining and then emptied the bench.
“It was like a perfect storm,” Izzo said. “I’m proud of my team, my staff. We did an excellent job of preparing for the different things we wanted to do. We probably played our best game in three years, and they probably played one of their worst.”
You can point to all kinds of things the Spartans did right, and so many things Michigan failed to execute. But the game boiled down to two main ingredients: The Spartans’ suffocating double-teams whenever they saw screens coming for Trey Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. on the perimeter, and the Wolverines playing as if they had never been in a big game in front of a hostile crowd.
First and foremost, the Wolverines did not respond when challenged. Coaches use this huddle speech whenever their team gets a big lead against a quality opponent: “They are going to make a run! You know that, and so you have to continue to play as hard as you have to this point.”
Izzo said this was his message at halftime, with a 38-24 lead: “Give me 20 more minutes of relentless play!” He got it, too.
So, that run that everybody expected Michigan to make never came. The score was never closer than 12 points in the second half because the Wolverines, with the exception of point guard Burke and shooting forward Nik Stauskas, failed to step up.
“It’s a physical game and you have to embrace it,” Beilein said. “We did not and they did. They just got away from us. There wasn’t any turning back after they made that spurt in the second half. … Paying attention in huddles. I thought our guys were distracted coming out of the huddle a couple of times.”
During a timeout with seven minutes to play, Spartans fans chimed in with the predictable and deserved chant: “OVER-rated!” The Wolverines stood around Beilein, hands on hips, with their glazed-over stares.
They crawled into a hole and covered up rather than spitting out a few nails.
Michigan has been one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams, and Izzo opted to take that away by sending forwards Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson out to double-team Burke and Hardaway whenever they got the ball on the perimeter.
That ripped the heart out of the Wolverines, who could not take advantage by finding the man left open by Payne or Dawson.
“Every time they came off screens, we had two guys on them,” Izzo said. “You’ve got to have good assistants. They have a lot of hard sets to cover.”
But the Spartans were prepared. When I walk back to the parking lot after games, I pass the Spartans basketball coaching offices. It is usually two or three hours after the game, and there are assistants Dwayne Stephens, Mike Garland and Dane Fife sitting behind desks and breaking down film to prepare their players for the next opponent the next morning.
“You have to credit the managers and coaches for the great jobs they do in breaking down film and getting it to our iPads to study whenever we want,” Payne said. “They do a great job of scouting and had us prepared. Without them, we wouldn’t have won the game.”
Hardaway was 1-for-11 from the field and missed all five treys to finish with two points. Forward Glenn Robinson III continued his struggles with two points. Spartans reserve forwards Brian Costello (eight points) and Alex Gauna (three) nearly tripled the totals of those Michigan starters.
It was the first time in 170 games between the rivals that both were ranked in the top 10, and a blowout resulted. Both teams are 21-4, but it is MSU atop the Big Ten with a 10-2 record. The Wolverines are tied for third at 8-4.
The schedule eases up for Michigan after losing three of the past four. The Wolverines play the conference’s top five teams only two more times, and those games against the Spartans and Indiana both are in Ann Arbor.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Spartans, who play each of the other teams in the top five once each with a split of home and road games with the Hoosiers, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan.
So, the race isn’t over. It’s just that MSU has the lead and the Wolverines probably must win their last six games to win the conference’s regular season championship.
Izzo acknowledged that his challenge is to keep his team playing at a level it had not reached previously this season, while knowing what lurks ahead when the teams meet again on March 2 or 3 at the Crisler Center.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Izzo said in the concourse after his press conference. “They are a lot better team than that. I watched 18 of their games.”
But in this one, his Spartans deserved to take bows for crushing Michigan. Who saw that coming?