The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State in football is one of the best in the country. But it obscures the fact that, in just about every other sport, Michigan’s main rival is Michigan State.
In men’s basketball, there’s no team either school would rather beat than the other. The problem is, for a rivalry to really catch on, both sides need to be at the top of their game. Think of Bo versus Woody, Borg-McEnroe and, of course, Ali-Frazier, which required three death-defying fights just to determine that one of them might have been slightly better than the other.
The Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry, in contrast, usually consists of at least one lightweight. When Michigan got to the NCAA final in 1976, Michigan State had not been to the tournament in 17 years.
When Michigan State won the NCAA title in 1979, Michigan finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten.
When Michigan won back-to-back Big Ten titles in 1985 and ‘86, State wasn’t close. And when State rolled up four straight Big Ten titles under Tom Izzo, Michigan was headed for probation, and yet another coach.
Around that time, Izzo told me there was no reason, given the basketball talent in this state, that this rivalry could not be every bit as good as Duke and North Carolina. But for more than a decade, it was anything but. Izzo owned Michigan, winning 18 of 21 games through 2010.
But Michigan managed to sweep State last year for the first time in 13 years. And on Tuesday night, for only the fifth time in the rivalry’s long history, Michigan and Michigan State both entered their contest ranked in the top 20.
This was it. The rivalry finally looked like a rivalry.
The stage had improved, too. Crisler Arena used to be too dark and too warm, with seats that were too soft and students scattered high among the gold seats, with a jazz band, for some reason, playing standards more suited to a smoky night club than a basketball arena. Crisler was set up not for an intense basketball game, but a Saturday matinee – or a nap.
But the place has been redone. They added lights, then tore out a section of cushy seats and replaced them with wooden benches nobody wants to sit in, and put the students there – who stand the entire game anyway. They’ve reserved the endzone for the pep band, which plays – here’s a novel idea – band music. Now the place actually gives an advantage to the home team.
But none of the improved “atmospherics” could change the fact that the Wolverines hadn’t beaten a top ten Spartan team since a guy named Magic Johnson played for the green and white. Yes, that’s 1979.
The game actually lived up to its billing, with the battle raging for the full forty minutes. Michigan built an 11-point lead, State erased it, then it was back-and-forth the rest of the way. With just 36 seconds left, the Wolverines took a one-point lead. But with just one shot, State could take the game.
The arena was electric – something it had not been for decades. With just three seconds left, State’s Draymond Green drove to the basket, jumped up, and fired. The ball hit the backboard, then the rim – and out. They got the rebound, put it back up – and missed. The ball landed into the hands of Tim Hardaway, Jr., who launched it into the air to start the celebration.
To be sure, it was a big victory for the Wolverines.
But it could be bigger than that: the start of a truly great rivalry.