Wolverines reignite rivalry with Spartans

1st top-10 clash in series history

Michigan coach John Beilein and Trey Burke have the Wolverines ranked No. 4.
Michigan coach John Beilein and Trey Burke have the Wolverines ranked No. 4.

ANN ARBOR — More of a romp than a rivalry, there was little doubt not long ago who played the role of little brother when Michigan and Michigan State met in basketball.

The Wolverines endured more than a decade of post-Fab Five malaise while MSU was the enduring national power. Michigan went 3-14 against the Spartans in the nine-plus seasons before John Beilein arrived in 2007 — a span that included seven straight losses by at least 14 points.

“When we first came here, it wasn’t the rivalry it had been in the past,” Beilein said. “There was a pronounced Michigan State dominance."

But like Michigan State did on the football field in recent years, Michigan has struck back in the winter.

Today, the rivals will meet as top-10 teams for the first time in the series’ 105-year history.

Forget Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Louisville. Nowhere, perhaps, is there a more high-stakes rivalry this season than the one being waged between No. 4 Michigan and eighth-ranked Michigan State.

A showdown headlined by the point-guard matchup of Michigan sophomore Trey Burke, a top contender for national player of the year, and all-conference junior Keith Appling tips off at 9 p.m. today in East Lansing. The teams also meet March 2 in Ann Arbor.

"We had a lot of getting better to do to [catch up to MSU], and we’re getting there," Beilein said. "But still we have tremendous respect for the Michigan State program. As long as Tom Izzo and his staff are there, they’re always going to be strong. Hopefully, we’ll be just as strong now and in the years to come.”

Beyond bragging rights, this one is big. Michigan (21-3, 8-3 Big Ten) and Michigan State (20-4, 9-2) shared the conference regular-season title last year and are back squarely in the fray along with top-ranked Indiana (21-3, 9-2) this season.

Let us count what’s on the line. Three days after falling at Wisconsin — a wrenching overtime loss made possible by Badgers junior guard Ben Brust’s tying heave from just inside midcourt at the end of regulation — a Wolverines win would pull them even with MSU, represent their first road win over a currently ranked team, and send a definitive message to their rivals that times have changed. Michigan has won three of its last four games over MSU.

A loss, meanwhile, would drop UM two games behind the Spartans — a result the whited-out crowd of 16,000 at the Breslin Center are roaring to see. Though Izzo won’t say it, the Spartans can’t be thrilled with the parade of national headlines praising their in-state rivals.

Izzo said he has "great respect" for Beilein and Michigan, but added he does not feel "threatened."

"I hate the 'we don't get respect' thing," Izzo told reporters. "I'm hoping nobody uses that because I think we get a lot of respect. And I think [the Wolverines] earned their respect. They've accomplished something. They've done something. They've withstood it here for being in the top 5 for three months.

"They were anointed that because of what they had coming back, and they've lived up to that. We've kind of fought our way through it to get to that, and I think so both of us have got some things to feel good about."

One thing everyone can agree on: The rivalry is back ... and better than ever.

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