Kornacki: Beilein has gotten Michigan on even ground with Michigan State
Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo had this state to himself for well over a decade.
He made the first of his six Final Four appearances in 1999, the same year Michigan began its nearly incomprehensible run of 10 consecutive years without an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Hey, if you’ve looking for a "little brother" tag in this intra-state rivalry, it was hanging from the Wolverines.
Those days are over, though.
John Beilein has done what Brian Ellerbe and Tommy Amaker could not by returning the Wolverines to national prominence.
Beilein began by getting them back to the NCAA tourney in 2009 but then went 15-17 the following season. More doubt.
Now he has the No. 10 Wolverines (16-4, 8-0 Big Ten) well on their way to a fourth straight NCAA tourney and perhaps another deep run.
Last March, by leading Michigan to its first Final Four since 1993, Beilein got the upper hand on Izzo, whose last advance past the Sweet 16 was the 2010 Final Four.
College basketball programs are judged as much for their Final Four appearances as national championships. That’s why Izzo’s half-dozen trips to the game’s ultimate stage created such a great chasm between his program and that of sleeping giant Michigan.
In terms of credentials then, Izzo, 59, still has it all over Beilein, 60.
Izzo has appeared in more Final Fours (winning the championship in 2000) than any Big Ten coach and is fourth on the all-time conference victories list with 217 — trailing only Bob Knight, Gene Keady and Ward Lambert. Only Mike Krzyzewski’s 18 consecutive NCAA tourney appearances surpass Izzo’s 16.
Last year, I asked CBS-TV analyst Bill Raftery, a former college coach, which four current college coaches he’d place on the sport’s Mount Rushmore.
"I’d put Tom up there," said Raftery, looking over his glasses at Izzo, who was sprinting down court with the Spartans during a practice. "Mike Krzyzewski and (Jim) Boeheim."
Raftery paused. This last one was going to be tough. But in a few seconds, Raftery said, "Bill Self. There’s my four, and I’m leaving about eight great coaches off the mountain."
Beilein has a ways to go before reaching that conversation. However, where high-school recruits are concerned, the last decade is ancient history.
In the minds of tomorrow’s players, there really is very little difference between Michigan and Michigan State.
The Wolverines won their final regular-season game against the Spartans last year, then prevailed in their first regular-season meeting this year. In fact, Michigan has won five of the last seven encounters.
Yes, the rivalry is alive and well again after the Spartans had an incredible 18-3 run of success.
Seldom have both programs thrived at the same time. Really the only time both were at the top of the same hill was the late 1970’s, when Johnny Orr took the Wolverines to the 1976 NCAA title game and Jud Heathcote won MSU’s first NCAA championship in 1979.
Well, they’re at the preak together again. The next installment of the rivalry — Feb. 23 at Ann Arbor — will be widely anticipated across the state and among college hoops junkies everywhere. The No. 7 Spartans (19-2, 8-1) were ranked third until losing the first meeting this season.
Michigan State’s game-changing power forward Adreian Payne missed last Saturday’s 80-75 Michigan win, but should be back from his sprained right foot injury for the next game. The Wolverines still will be without dynamic center Mitch McGary (back surgery), and MSU still won’t have forward Branden Dawson (broken hand).
Count on MSU’s Gary Harris and U-M’s Nik Stauskas continuing their Big Ten player-of-the-year debate. And you’ll see the intensity in the eyes of each and every player on the court — and even those on the benches.
The Big Ten Network’s "The Journey" series will provide a peek at the fire of the rivalry at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, when the friendship of Harris and Wolverines freshman guard Zak Irvin is detailed and cameras take you inside the winning locker room after the last meeting.
Irvin and Harris played together at Hamilton Southeastern High in Fishers, Ind., winning the state’s Mr. Basketball title in consecutive years.
One chose Izzo and the other Beilein. In a way, they best symbolize how the two heated (hated?) rivals have arrived atop the Big Ten and among the NCAA’s best at the same time.
These are two coaches you can trust to develop better players, and better people and students, as well.
I was writing a story about the mother of one of Beilein’s former West Virginia players, sharp-shooting Alex Ruoff, for the Tampa Tribune when she mentioned Beilein.
"He sat in the same chair you are in right now," she told me, "and he told me he would be like a father to my son. And he was."
Ask Mateen Cleaves’ mother about Izzo, and you will get the same unabashed admiration and love for what he meant to her son.
Beilein’s more of a pat-on-the-back communicator, while Izzo’s more of a kick-in-the-butt guy. But their love of their players is crystal clear, which is at the root of their success.
Enjoy their next meeting in three weeks — perhaps again in the Big Ten tourney championship game — and in the years ahead.
Where "Go Blue!" and "Go Green!" are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than this. Rivalries are best when your rival is as great as you are.