When Michigan and Michigan State met February 24, the stakes were high. It was a late-season battle between two rivals fighting for pole position in the Big Ten race. It was only the third time the teams met with both ranked in the Top 10 in series history. Michigan brought back 200 program alumni including members of the 1989 National Championship team. The two rivals took the stage for yet another epic battle.
As Spartans coach Tom Izzo deployed defensive concepts seldom seen from his team before, and Michigan’s offense went cold, Izzo and his team snapped a three-game losing streak to the Wolverines with a 77-70 victory in Ann Arbor.
“As John and I talked before the game, this could end up one of the best rivalries,” Izzo said after his team’s win on February 24. “There aren’t a lot of places where two schools in the same state are ranked in the Top 10.” Izzo went on to agree that under the circumstances, that win was the most important win at Crisler of his career.
“I just said we are in the championship hunt,” replied John Beilein when asked what he told his team after losing to the Spartans. “Anything can happen down the stretch; we didn’t think that they would lose at home to Indiana. Anything can happen.”
With Michigan State suffering a loss at Indiana Saturday, and Purdue falling to Minnesota Tuesday, at least a share of the Big Ten championship is up for grabs Saturday night. Michigan has a chance to log one of its most important wins at the Breslin Center, in what will be one of the biggest games in that building’s 30-year history.
If Purdue loses at Northwestern Saturday afternoon, Saturday’s matchup will become a title fight for an outright Big Ten championship. Michigan last won the Big Ten in 2014, Michigan State is aiming for a second straight Big Ten banner to put in the Breslin rafters after winning the outright title in 2018.
Saturday marks the first time in the Wolverines and Spartans 183 game history that both teams are meeting in the regular season finale with both sides competing for a share of a conference title. John Beilein has often cited that the basketball rivalry is different than the football rivalry, but in terms of stakes, and winner take all, Saturday is as close to football as it can get.
Both teams will take the floor at Breslin Saturday night somewhat battered. Michigan forward Charles Matthews suffered an ankle injury during the teams last meeting, and his status remains unknown for the game. As for the Spartans, Izzo stated junior center Nick Ward (hand) is unlikely to play, and senior Kyle Ahrens, who plays on the wing off the bench, is likely to dress, but his playing status remains questionable.
As the rivalry between the two programs has evened out over the last decade (Michigan leads the series 9-8 since the start of the 2010-11 season,) Beilein and Izzo have shown tremendous respect for each other while things on the court have ranged from respectful to downright chippy. Since 2012, Saturday marks the ninth time Michigan and Michigan State meet with both teams ranked in the Top 25. The teams had only met as ranked opponents six times in the 167 meetings before 2012. It will also be the fourth time since 2013 that both sides are meeting as top ten opponents.
The last time Michigan and Michigan State met with the winner cutting down the nets was in the 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game. The Spartans won that game 69-55 in Indianapolis after being swept in the regular season by the Wolverines. Saturday could be the first of two meetings between the Wolverines and Spartans in eight days should both teams make it to championship Sunday of the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago next weekend.
Saturday will be a night that will last in the memories of all those who follow Michigan and Michigan State basketball for a long time. For the first time, one of these teams will clinch a conference championship, and eventually, raise a banner, after beating their biggest rival. The stakes cannot get higher, and for John Beilein, Tom Izzo, and their respective teams, this rivalry has spent an entire decade building to this very moment.