DETROIT — Rivalries work best when the opponents trade places. And the more they do, the better it gets for the rest of us.
Tom Izzo understands that as well as anyone, and far better than most.
So even though the shoes appear to be on the other feet, if you will, with Michigan State wearing a top-10 national ranking into Saturday’s matchup against a ragged-looking Michigan squad in Ann Arbor, Izzo wants to make sure his players don’t trip over themselves.
“Anybody that thinks this isn’t a good Michigan team is crazy,” Izzo said Thursday, with his team fresh off an eighth consecutive win and off to its best start since the 2018-19 season that ended with another Final Four trip.
He went on to say some variation of that same thing a few more times, calling Michigan "one of the most talented teams — not just in the Big Ten, but in the country," before he was done talking ahead of Saturday’s Crisler Center clash.
Yet as crazy as it might’ve sounded a few months ago, the tables really have turned on these two teams.
The Wolverines began the season ranked No. 6 in the country and a popular pick to repeat as Big Ten champs, though the preseason media poll was evenly split between Michigan and Purdue.
Izzo’s team, meanwhile, was viewed as a bit of a wild card coming off a fitful 2020-21 campaign that included a late-season rally to extend Izzo’s NCAA Tournament streak and ended with a loss to UCLA in the First Four.
But now it’s the Wolverines who may have to do something similar, having dropped three of their last four — including a first-ever loss to Rutgers on Tuesday — to fall to 7-6 on the season, and with a brutal Big Ten stretch just ahead. (Following Saturday’s game against Michigan State, Juwan Howard’s team hosts Purdue on Tuesday and then plays at Illinois next Friday.)
After playing that road game at Rutgers with a severely limited bench — Michigan was missing a handful of players, four of them due to COVID-19 protocols — Howard still wasn’t sure Friday what he’d have to face Michigan State. Two of the four players had cleared health protocols as of Friday morning, but two others were awaiting test results while two staff members had been ruled out for Saturday’s game.
“We’re trying to stay afloat and stay ready,” Howard said. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s frustrating. But it’s frustrating for us all, in the sports world and the non-sports world.”
And in the world of sports rivalries, none of that really matters, of course. At least it won’t for a couple hours Saturday in Ann Arbor, where Izzo says he expects “the normal backyard brawl” and Howard, who is back to reminding his players to “embrace the suck” — just as he did last March when they spent three weeks in a hotel in downtown Indianapolis — all but promises the same.
“Coach Izzo will have his team ready to play,” Howard said. “They’re a physical team. They’re gonna play hard from start to finish. They understand it’s a rivalry game, so they’re gonna play with some nastiness about them. So we’ve just got to be ready to bring our lunch pail and our hard hats and let’s go to work.”
Not much has been working for the Wolverines lately, though. And with a young team that’s clearly reeling — struggling with defensive lapses, lacking any offensive flow and missing far too many open 3-point looks (freshman Caleb Houstan is 2 for 17 on 3s over the last four games) — Howard has made a point to accentuate the positive, on and off the court.
“Keep encouraging is the most important thing,” he explained. “(Sometimes) you need a pat on the back, and you also need to know that your coach is in your corner and supporting you.”
On the flip side, Izzo is enjoying the luxury every coach wants.
“It’s great when you can complain after a win,” he said smiling, adding he’d spent most of Thursday morning meeting with his staff and some of his players trying to tackle Michigan State's persistent turnover problems.
The Spartans committed 19 in Wednesday’s 79-67 victory over Nebraska — 11 of them came in the first 10 minutes — and the message to his players at this point is pretty simple: Stop it, or else.
“Eventually it’s gonna get us,” Izzo said.
Still, what he’s getting from this team is more than most probably expected. The Spartans are ranked in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they’re a top-10 team when it comes to 3-point shooting — last year Michigan State ranked 249th in the country — and they’ve got the kind of depth that Izzo certainly can use to his advantage Saturday if Michigan is shorthanded again.
The Spartans also have the edge in experience, which does count for something in this game. Howard starts two freshmen, has another in the rotation, and a transfer point guard who spent the last three years playing for the College of Charleston.
“But they understand this is very important,” the coach said, when asked about the rivalry's see-it-to-believe-it intensity. “They’ve heard it from me, and they’ll continue to keep hearing it.”
Meanwhile, Michigan State’s players can expect to keep hearing about how looks can be deceiving.
They might even hear about that rivalry game in 2017, when a Michigan team that was floundering at 4-6 in Big Ten play caught fire on a Tuesday night in February and routed the Spartans by almost 30 points in Ann Arbor. Or from a couple years ago, when the Wolverines — losers of six of nine and three in a row at home — upset Cassius Winston & Co to revive their tournament hopes.
“This is a very talented, well-coached team,” Izzo said, “and we’ve got to play our best, I promise you that.”
Promises are meant to be kept. But Izzo knows all too well, that's easier said than done in college hoops. Especially when it's your archrival on the other side of the court.