MSU, U-M could both reach Final Four

Be careful what you wish for.

“Well guys,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters as he stepped off the dais Saturday night, “you wanted a rivalry and you wanted two good teams. And I guess we got what we’ve been asking for.”

There always was a rivalry between Michigan State and Michigan basketball within the often-infantile parochialism of bragging rights.

Michigan State fan: “You guys stink at basketball.”

Michigan fan: “What’s basketball?”

Not exactly discourse worthy of Dale Carnegie.

But Izzo’s emotional outpouring in the aftermath of Michigan’s fifth victory over the Spartans in their past seven tries was indicative of a man feeling the heat of a fast-approaching adversary. Izzo was one of the louder advocates for a stronger rivalry, openly questioning why MSU-Michigan eventually couldn’t become a filtered version of Tobacco Road.

It never can rise to the level of Duke-North Carolina, but MSU-Michigan rapidly is becoming a true rivalry of equals. Michigan is pushing Michigan State hard on the hardwood, the same as Michigan State football is pushing the Wolverines on the gridiron. The irony in this amusing reversal of fates is that coach John Beilein has become Michigan basketball’s version of MSU football coachMark Dantonio, the right coach with the right message at the right time. Beilein comes across as dry and bland, but he staunchly believes in his system and finding the right pieces for that system — regardless of their recruiting rankings.

Sound familiar?

Now if Rich Homie Quan’s “Type of Way” becomes Michigan basketball’s unofficial anthem and Beilein starts dancing in the locker room with his team after Michigan wins, then we’ve officially stumbled onto an alternative reality.

“Some people might have thought that going to the national championship game (last year) was just a fluke,” said Michigan sharpshooter and Breslin Center postgame kiss-thrower Nik Stauskas. “But we know that we’re still a good team this year. We’re not going away.”

It’s not too crazy that the Spartans and Wolverines could make the Final Four this spring if the final six weeks of the regular season validates them as the premier teams in the Big Ten, arguably the deepest basketball conference in the land again.

Now, that would be an actual rivalry instead of simply a reason for talking smack.

Three straight wins over top-10 teams in the middle of January might be the apex of the Wolverines’ season, whereas the Spartans must concentrate on tomorrow, because there is no today with the absences of Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, and Keith Appling’s inability to shoot with a severely sprained right wrist.

The Spartans are better positioned for the longer NCAA tournament run.

Both have displayed resiliency in overcoming injuries. But Mitch McGary’s return this season from back surgery appears unlikely, making the Wolverines a one-dimensional offensive team. If the three-pointers aren’t failing, they’re doomed. Payne and Dawson will return, making the Spartans an even more formidable tournament team if they add to that veteran mix the modest but noticeable contributions from once obscure pieces forced to step up in Payne and Dawson’s absences.

That’s why January college basketball is a mere appetizer. March is what matters most.

There’s no denying the heightened sense of national championship urgency at Michigan State. Izzo knows the clock’s ticking. There aren’t any super teams along the NCAA tournament horizon, unlike previous seasons, making the opportunity more advantageous for them.

But don’t discount the resurgence of their once quiet and now noisy next-door neighbor for significantly fueling that urgency.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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