In the State of Michigan, you bleed maize and blue or green and white. You are either a Spartan who can’t stand the arrogance of your rival to the east. Or you’re a Wolverine for whom Michigan State will always be your little brother. There is no love lost between these two in-state rivals, and that’s why it’s always a big day when the schools suit up to go head-to-head on the football field. This year, with Michigan ranked sixth nationally and Michigan State coming off a season-saving win in Happy Valley, Saturday’s game takes on new meaning.
All the excitement and punditry surrounding this weekend’s game in East Lansing got us itching to jump into the madness and thinking about the state of the rivalry on the basketball court. Don’t look now, but we may well be living through a golden age of the Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry. The story of how we got here is about one team making an unlikely comeback to prominence while the other doubled down on its powerhouse status, both propelled by larger-than-life coaching personalities.
After a back-and-forth power struggle in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Tom Izzo and the Spartans took firm control of the match-up from 1995 through 2010. Their rival was reeling from the rise and fall of the Fab Five, and picking up the pieces after the Ed Martin booster scandal. From probation and scholarship penalties to a post-season ban and the firing of a beloved coach, Michigan was trying to rebuild its reputation while Michigan State was picking up steam in a new era with a dynamic young head coach. The Spartans won 20 of the 23 match-ups between the schools during this time, firmly cementing themselves as the dominant basketball program in the state.
But then, as is so often the case in sports, one decision changed everything. In 2007, the Wolverines hired John Beilein of West Virginia University to be their new head coach and rebuild their tarnished program. Change didn’t come immediately. From 2008-2010, Michigan was 0-4 in head-to-head match-ups against Michigan State and never made it past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament. But, gradually things trended upward in Ann Arbor.
And that progress culminated in East Lansing on January 27, 2011, when the Wolverines took on Michigan State and arguably ushered in a new era in the Michigan-MSU rivalry. With 22 seconds left on the clock, junior Stu Douglass nailed a three and extended Michigan’s lead to five points. The Wolverines went on to win that game – the first time in 1,181 days that Michigan had beaten Michigan State in either basketball or football. Former Michigan guard Josh Bartelstein told the Big Ten Network, “if you read a book on what changed Michigan basketball, it might be Stu Douglass’s shot from that right corner three point line.” And more than just Michigan hoops, that shot marked a new day for an in-state rivalry that had bordered on irrelevant for so long.
So, Michigan rebounded and Michigan State remained pretty darn good. Why does that make the last several years a golden era in the rivalry? Well, a couple reasons.
Rivalries thrive when both teams are enjoying success. If one team or the other is dominant for long stretches or the consistent favorite in head-to-head match-ups, the rivalry will founder. Since that fateful day at Breslin in 2011, Michigan has posted an impressive 190-81 record. The team has won the Big Ten regular season and the conference tournament twice, all while making two trips to the NCAA championship game. Meanwhile, the Spartans have continued their success under Izzo and amassed a 198-71 record in the same time frame. In that seven-year period, the Spartans also won the Big Ten regular season championship twice, the tournament championship three times, and made an appearance in two sweet sixteens, an elite eight, and a final four.
So, the rivalry has undeniably benefited from both teams competing for Big Ten titles and making late tourney runs year in and year out. But more than that, and the virtually equal records since 2011, the rivalry is flourishing because of the important head-to-head match-ups between the schools. The two teams have traded wins since 2011, with the Wolverines leading the head-to-head series 8-6. And in many of these games, the stakes were about as high as they get. In 2013, a talented Michigan team ranked fourth nationally faced a ninth ranked Michigan State roster loaded with talent and experience. Trey Burke pick-pocketed Keith Appling with 25 seconds left in the game, pushing Michigan ahead of the Spartans and laying foundation for an unforgettable NCAA tournament run. In 2014, after the Wolverines swept the regular season series on their way to another Big Ten title, the Spartans exacted revenge in the Big Ten tournament final and launched a post-season campaign that would end in the elite eight. And this past year, when the Spartans returned a presumed NBA lottery pick in Miles Bridges and glided through the first few months of the season ranked fourth in the country, it was Michigan that handed them their first loss at home and sent them home from the Big Ten tourney in New York. The rivalry has thrived not just because the teams have achieved success, but because they have played each other tough when it mattered most.
The second ingredient for any memorable rivalry is personality. Rivalries are about more than just the wins and losses. The reason we care so much is because the people in the rivalries are larger than life. The individuals become synonymous with the team. Michigan and Ohio State achieved legendary rivalry status when Bo and Woody were going at it. The Lakers and Celtics bouts were about Magic and Larry or Russell versus Chamberlain. In the past several years, the UM-MSU basketball rivalry has been taken to new heights because both programs have an identity that is inextricably tied to one man – the head coach.
Tom Izzo is Michigan State basketball. Since he took over in 1995, he’s built a college basketball juggernaut, earned 21 consecutive NCAA tournament bids, and brought a national championship back to East Lansing. “Mr. March,” as he’s referred to by many, is brash and tough and fiercely loyal. And that’s exactly what fans, players, and parents at Michigan State love about him. Indeed, Izzo personifies the Spartans - through the good times and the bad. When he came under fire this past year for his program’s mishandling of sexual assault cases, the community rushed to his defense because attacking Tom Izzo is attacking the institution.
And while John Beilein may not engender the same allegiance at a school that often cares more about football than basketball, it’s clear that he has left an indelible mark at Michigan. Michigan basketball’s on-court identity exudes all things Beilein. From the two-guard offense centered on three-point shooting to the minuscule turnover rate to the transition efficiency, everything this Michigan does well is a product of Beilein’s genius and his methodical execution. The winningest coach in Michigan history, Beilein recently secured a contract extension that all but ensures that he’ll finish his career in Ann Arbor. With Izzo and Beilein at the helm of these two teams, this rivalry is and will continue to be at its best.
But a rivalry also needs venom. It’s not enough that the schools are in the same state or that countless households throughout Michigan have split loyalties and fight over the color of the license plate or the flag above the porch. There has to be some real, inexplicable, illogical venom. Venom produces chippy games and physical play. Venom feeds narratives, drives ticket sales, and engages fan bases. Venom is the lifeblood of a sports rivalry. And in this one, there’s no doubt that the schools, the players, the coaches, and the fans all buy in.
For starters, just watch the games. Notice that the Spartans’ acclaimed “floor slapping” gets a little more vicious and more frequent when they’re playing the wolverines. Watch Charles Matthews stand over Nick Ward with a haughty grin on his face for a few seconds too long in the 2018 Big Ten tournament.
Tom Izzo has never been shy about his feelings on Michigan. In 2017, he said to the Lansing State Journal, “I hated them so bad over the S and the recruiting and the cheating, all that [crap] they found out later.” In a 2013 episode of The Journey on Big Ten Network, former Michigan captain Zach Novak said “the one surprising thing for me… [was] the hatred never really goes away…the thing I hated the most was the cockiness.” “State people say that Michigan people…all think we’re better than everyone. That might be the only thing they’re right about.” And Spartan legend Draymond Green followed suit, saying, “I don’t wish no good on that school – I’d love to see them lose every game in every sport and that’s how I’ll always feel.”
By all metrics, the Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry is as competitive and fervent as it’s ever been. And I wouldn’t expect that to end any time soon. Both schools were ranked nationally in 2018-’19 preseason polls and are expected to compete for a Big Ten title. Both teams return gritty starters that understand and appreciate the rivalry. And if that’s not enough, take comfort in the simple fact that Nick Ward and Charles Matthews will share the floor least twice this year. Most importantly, the two coaches that have carefully crafted their program’s identity and fully bought into the importance of the in-state rivalry have shown no signs of going anywhere.
So, as you get ready for this weekend’s big football game and dress your kids in their Saturday best or find yourself yelling at an elderly fan from the other school, remember Tom Izzo’s words of wisdom. “You can’t like your rivals. That’d be illegal, un-American, put in jail, all those things should happen to you.