Wolverines Understand Significance of First Place Battle with Spartans Sunday

Basketball

Michigan coach John Beilein has faced Michigan State 20 times in his career as Michigan coach. In those twenty meetings, Michigan and Michigan State have faced off as ranked opponents seven times, and it will be the third time the Wolverines and Spartans face off as Top Ten teams in the last six years. Michigan has won the previous three meetings with the Spartans to improve Beilein’s record to 9-11 against his team’s arch rival, but there is a fundamental reason Beilein downplays the significance of this matchup each season.

“Basketball is just different,” Beilein explained. “You know football games you play them once, and it probably is going to determine who goes to the championship, right? That’s it. With us, there’s a game, and then there is another game, and then if we play in the tournament, there’s another game, and oh we made the NCAA’s there is another game, you can’t just say this is life or death. It is really important to be at our best and win this game, but it is not how we measure our success.”

That mentality has served Michigan well; the Wolverines are 9-7 against the Spartans since the start of the 2010-11 season. In that span, neither team has won less than two straight games, with MSU winning five in a row from the 2014 Big Ten Tournament to the first meeting of 2016-17. Freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, preparing to face the Spartans for the first time in his career, echoed the same sentiment his head coach.

“I just remember Nik (Stauskus) when he blew the kisses out to the Michigan State fans (in 2014)” Brazdeikis replied when asked about his earliest memory of the rivalry between the Spartans and Wolverines. “(Stauskus) told me how big this game is but I kinda feel like the fans hype up the game bigger than it actually is. Obviously the game is big but at the end of the day it is a regular season game, to me it’s not any bigger than Minnesota or the other games because at the end of the day it is about winning, and it is about us.”

Brazdeikis is preparing for his first outing against the Spartans; junior Jon Teske is readying for his fifth. Michigan’s starting center is 3-1 against the Spartans in his career but has played only sparingly off the bench in those matchups. Teske’s maternal grandfather attended Michigan State, despite growing up an Ohio State fan after moving to Medina, Ohio, Teske was plenty familiar with the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry as a youngster.

“I grew up in the Grand Rapids area. Growing up I always knew the rivalry, always watched the games, football and basketball, so I kinda had a taste of that. Now being part of it, it is different, very different, it’ll be an exciting game on Sunday.”

Teske said he got his first real understanding of the rivalry his freshman year when Michigan State topped Michigan 70-62 in a very physical game inside the Breslin Center.

“My freshman year when we went to the Breslin Center, I just kind of watched D-Walt (Derrick Walton) and Zak (Irvin) play, and saw with how much emotion they play,” said Teske, reflecting on his first game against the Spartans. “We lost a nailbiter there but going into last year, I knew every time we play them it’s going to be a good game, it’s going to be a battle, and it always comes down to the last couple minutes and how well we execute, how well they execute.”

The Wolverines are prepared for Sunday’s game to get chippy and physical, as some recent meetings between the two teams have. Brazdeikis said team captains push that mentality on the Wolverines in practice.

“I feel like it comes from our toughness, and our leaders Charles and X they do a great job pushing us. We’ve got a bunch of dogs on our team, a bunch of pit bulls that are ready to kill,” said Brazdeikis.

Teske is plenty familiar with the energy required when playing against an arch rival.

“Very intense, lotta hate between these two teams but I respect those guys. They are a very good team. Very well coached, and it’s gonna be a battle on Sunday,” the junior said.

Beilein discussed that while he and Izzo don’t exactly have a friendship, the two come from similar backgrounds and upbringings, and it is why both programs have found success in the last nine seasons.

“For both of these programs to be where they have been with a whole bunch of championships in the last decade, four Final Fours between the two of us. Who is doing that? What other state is doing that with two schools in the same state? Duke and North Carolina. That’s the only one you can compare, and maybe I am missing a state out there. It’s not happening, it really says a lot about what two great programs we have.”

Sunday’s game won’t just be for bragging rights, the winner will have a leg up in the Big Ten Championship race. While the Wolverines may be downplaying the significance of it, it is fitting that two years after both teams had relatively quiet regular seasons, and one year after both hung Big Ten banners (MSU for the regular season championship and Michigan for the tournament championship) that Sunday’s game will have a role in deciding the Big Ten Championship. Like the past four meetings, anyone is hard pressed to know what exactly will unfold once the ball is tipped, but it is shaping up to be another classic between two of the Big Ten’s best.

Sunday’s game between Michigan and Michigan State will tip off at 3:45 ET inside of a sold-out Crisler Center. The game will be televised on CBS with Spero Dedes, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill on the call. Be sure to follow @WolverineLounge and @ByJaySarkar on Twitter for updates on gameday and beyond.

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