Feb. 11, 2013
EAST LANSING, Mich. - For years, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo openly longed for the day when the MSU-Michigan basketball rivalry was on par with the one contested on Tobacco Road.
To be at the level of Duke-North Carolina, however, Izzo pointed out that both programs have to be exceptional, and championships, not just bragging rights, have to be on the line. For too long, when Michigan State was holding up its end of the rivalry bargain, the Wolverines were not, and vice versa.
Well, The Day has finally arrived.
When the No. 8 Spartans host No. 4 Michigan in the Breslin Center Tuesday night, it will mark the first time both teams will go into the annual grudge match ranked in the Top 10.
Michigan State (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten) needs the victory to stay atop the conference standings and in contention for its eighth regular season championship under Izzo. Meantime, Michigan (21-3, 8-3) knows a loss would severely damage its chance to defend the league title it shared with MSU and Ohio State last season - its first in 26 years.
Now that the Wolverines have worked their way back onto the national college basketball map, and given Izzo's well-documented, shall we say, non-love for anything maize and blue, it would be easy for him to put this in the be-careful-what-you-wish-for-it-just-may-come-true category.
But in Izzo's quest to experience everything basketball has to offer before he's done coaching, the proposition of participating in this type of scenario far outweighs whatever threat U-M's resurgence poses to his program.
"The state almost always talked about it because it is what it is - there's Hatfields and McCoys in every relationship," Izzo said. "But, I think the nation is talking about it now and I guess there's a sick side of me that makes me happy now."
It's not that Izzo ever grew weary of knocking every Spartan's sworn nemesis down 19 times in the last 25 games, including 12 of the last 13 meetings at Breslin, one eight-game win streak and two four-game victory strings. After all, losing five straight meetings with U-M, beginning with his first season as head coach, is still an unhealed wound on his psyche.
But this is something new, and different and fresh to experience.
"Who wouldn't rather dominate a series?" Izzo said. "But, it's not a series that should be dominated by anybody. Both teams should be good and both teams are good this year. I don't think there's any question that in my estimation, this is their best team in a lot of years.
"They are solid in just about every position and it should make for a heckuva game. I think it's fun to actually feel like the game matters in every way, shape or form both locally and nationally, and I'm not sure that's happened since I've been here."
A decade ago, Izzo bristled at the mere suggestion by a reporter that Michigan had closed the gap with MSU after pulling off a rare upset in Ann Arbor.
Today, Izzo is so secure with what Michigan State has built that U-M's ascendency doesn't faze him.
"In basketball, North Carolina and Duke have been built up as one of the best rivalry games," he said. "They make it always the last game of the first half (of the season) and the last game of the season. Their own conference does that and there's a reason for it. It's because the game matters.
"I don't feel threatened; I don't feel overly excited. I think it's the way it's supposed to be, the way it should be and I think the good news is, I don't think we've really come down much -- we've maintained something for 16 years now, and that's pretty tough to do.
"Everybody's ratcheting it up. Indiana's ratcheting it up (too). But Michigan State's still there. I feel better about that than worrying about what other teams' success or failure is."
The Spartans have been to so many places and achieved so much under Izzo, it's getting harder and harder for the current players to be the first at anything.
Yes, this team played a game at a U.S. military base in Germany, but its predecessors have played on aircraft carrier decks, before world-record crowds, in Final Fours and national championship games, and in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and the list goes on and on.
But none of them have ever played in game where both teams are ranked in the Top 10 and in the hunt for the league title.
"This is great because we're both top-ranked teams and this game can make our stock go up or down," said senior co-captain Derrick Nix. "But I think more up because it's a big game with a lot of great players (and with) a lot of scouts and a lot of alumni and everybody across the world watching.
"It's a memory-maker."
And there's nothing Izzo likes his players to leave MSU with more than memories of doing something for the first time.