EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan basketball team was a bug-on-the-backboard inconvenience during an all-night, green-and-white party last year.
The Wolverines were overwhelmed by the Breslin Center’s wall of noise and overpowered by Michigan State’s wall of bodies in a 75-52 loss. In short, Wolverines guard Nik Stauskas said, “They punked us.”
Today Michigan gets its chance to respond.
In the biggest game of the Big Ten season to date, the league’s last two teams without a conference loss convene with first place on the line in East Lansing. It will be the first time in 171 all-time meetings No. 21 UM (14-4, 6-0 Big Ten) and third-ranked Michigan State (18-1, 7-0) have played with both sides 6-0 or better during conference play.
“The crowd there [last year] was something, but the physical play was bigger,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of a night in which the Wolverines were outrebounded 40-28. “They really did a good job of getting into our bodies and getting onto the backboard on us.
“Hopefully we’ll perform better because last year was not pretty.”
Can Michigan turn hope into another defining win?
With conference and state supremacy on the line and ESPN’s College GameDay on site, the stakes in a rivalry that has never been better are just as high as last season. But the streaking Wolverines are confident they will not be so wide-eyed this time.
Most of their core players — including Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Caris LeVert — were freshmen on the team that got bullied from the start last February in East Lansing. Since then, they beat the Spartans at home weeks later, rallied to the national title game, and have played before rattling atmospheres this season at Duke, Iowa State, and Wisconsin.
“That [Michigan State] game’s been in the back of my mind a lot,” Robinson said. “ ... We’ll be better prepared.”
The Wolverines will also head north with a deluge of momentum, coming off back-to-back wins against top-10 teams — at then-No. 3 Wisconsin and home against 10th-ranked Iowa — for the first time since the Fab Five took down No. 5 North Carolina and second-ranked Kansas in December, 1992.
A team that at one point lost four of eight games earlier this season has now won eight straight and is a win today away from swiping early control of the league race.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is what everyone expected. The Spartans just may be the most talented team in the country, with one major caveat — if they are healthy.
A Big Four of senior point guard Keith Appling (16.4 points, 5.3 assists), sophomore guard Gary Harris (17.6 points), junior forward Branden Dawson, and senior forward Adreian Payne will likely be down to the Big Two today.
Dawson, the Spartans’ leading rebounder, will miss four to five weeks with a broken hand suffered during a team film session on Thursday morning — “I kind of got frustrated, and I slammed my hand against the table,” he said — while Payne has missed the past four games with a sprained right foot.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Payne’s chances of playing “slim to none,” adding the emotions of the rivalry would not factor into his decision.
“It ain’t about one game,” Izzo told reporters. “It’s about [Payne’s] career, and it’s about our big picture of things. You know, I sat [All-American guard] Mateen Cleaves, and we lost to Wright State [in 2000]. Most embarrassing day of my life, to be honest with you, as a coach.
“But it didn’t change what I thought, and we went on to win a national championship. So no, that has no bearing. If we lose to Michigan, if we beat Michigan, it will not speed the process up. This process is about him; it’s about us in the long run.
Izzo continued: “I just want you all to know that coaches get accused of using players like a piece of meat. There’s no piece of meat here with [Payne]. And if it is a piece of meat, it’s worth more money than I am, so I’m not gonna screw that up for him, I’m not gonna screw it up for potentially our team.”
Still, the Spartans are deep and tough as usual, eager to again push around their rivals in a home arena where they have lost just two conference games since 2011.
Will Michigan have an answer this time?