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The Wolverines and the Spartans meet as top ten teams and you'll have to excuse me while I get used to this.
You're going to have to excuse me, this whole things still feels a little strange.
We all grow up. We lose the wide-eyed wonder and the narrow view of the world from our own highly subjective cocoons. But the memories still remain of a time when we understood things a different way. In a lot of cases, this kind of fuzzy hearkening back to this adolecent wonderment is what keeps our fandom humming. Casual rooting allegiances come and go, but when I root for Michigan in something (i.e. football or basketball) there is a whole lot of that past me wrapped up in it. The little me that went nuts for Tyrone Wheatley before I knew what I was going nuts about, or the older me that probably spent at least a year thinking Charles Woodson was the baddest motherfucker on the planet. A part of me is probably always going to be drawn back to that snapshot of "what I thought about things" when I was a freshman in highschool -- naivete and all -- even though as I found out over the years: freshman me didn't know shit about shit.
I've got old memories of Michigan basketball too, but they aren't as happy. I remember Steve Fisher getting fired and the 1998 team winning the Big Ten Tournament. I was actually there for the Amaker years, rooting for Graham Brown and Daniel Horton, looking up at Courtney Sims while standing in line at Wendys in the Union. I stuck around too. Into the Beilein years when things seemed to fall even further at first, and then the signs of progress began in earnest.
This is suffice it to say that the last couple years of Michigan-Michigan State dynamics are a bit strange to me. After all, I came of age at the time when Michigan football was still the unquestioned top program in the state while the Spartans were getting left at the alter by Nick Saban and then suffering through Bobby Williams. Meanwhile, Michigan basketball was on a steady decline under Brian Ellerbe that wasn't really much improved upon by Tommy Amaker. Michigan State? Um, how about starting a run of tournament appearances that still continues to this day, a couple Final Fours, and a national title. I was certainly the only kid on my highschool basketball team that harbored dreams of suiting up for the maize and blue, and even then my dreams weren't of a number one UM storming through the tournament. It was Michigan the 12 seed, the underdog, the surprise. The sheer reality of Michigan basketball bled into my dream scape. Even the fantasies were grounded in the reality of how much Michigan sucked at the time.
When I heard that this was the first matchup of Michigan State and Michigan when both were ranked in the top-10, I was a bit surprised. I always figured it was just my old freshman self that clung to the idea that these two programs just aren't ever good at the same time.
Holdin' The Rope already wrote the game preview and he has Michigan losing by two on the road. Chris from TOC predicted it will be a two-point win for the home team as well in the Q&A he did with me yesterday. In my Q&A over there, I wrote that Michigan finds a way to pull out the win and finish the four-game conference stretch of hell at 2-2. I'm not so sure about that anymore, and what's worse: I don't know why I'm not sure.
There are legitimate concerns about this Michigan team winning on the road against a top-10 team. For one, the last two top-10 teams Michigan has played on the road this year have jumped out to early double digit leads that ultimately led to a Michigan loss in both games. Glenn Robinson III has gone from being "Light Rob" to "Light on production Rob", while Nik Stauskas is currently being crushed under the weight of regression to the mean in three point shooting numbers. Add in the fact that for some reason Michigan can't find its way to the free throw line to save its life, and you've got a recipe for a whole lot of covered, perimeter jumpers and ill-fated drives into a forest of green clad bodies ready to knock shots back at a moments notice.
Although, there are certain parts of all this skepticism that just don't hold up under closer inspection. Michigan State isn't a juggernaut. The Spartans are just another of the many good but flawed teams inhabiting the top-25 right now. So when I panic about Michigan losing the battle on the boards because that is how it has always been, an easy sanity check is looking at the numbers to see that while the OR% allowed is even for both teams in conference play (28.3 to 28.6 with UM slightly ahead), Michigan is actually doing a slightly better job rebounding its own misses (33.1% to 30.9%).
The Spartans also aren't as deep as years past. Brandan Kearney left the team earlier this year, Travis Trice is battling an injury and will not play, and freshman Gary Harris is still banged up with a shoulder injury and back problems that have been plaguing him all season. The Spartans will have true freshman (and turnover machine, seriously, his TO rate is 31.3) Denzel Valentine as the primary backup in the backcourt.
This game is going to present a lot of interesting matchups. How will Keith Appling deal with Trey Burke? Can Glenn Robinson III handle checking Adreian Payne on the defensive end while finding a way to generate offense on the other side? Can Nik Stuaskas take advantage of being matched up against Gary Harris? Can Tim Hardaway Jr. continue to go HAM even with Branden Dawson tasked with stopping him? How will Mitch McGary hold up against MSU's inside duo?
For all the things that Michigan has going for it, this still isn't a game that you can count on winning. The Breslin is one of the toughest venues in the naiton, Tom Izzo is a hall of fame coach, and Michigan doesn't have a great track record this year against talented, defense oriented teams. Looking at the game right now, I don't think Michigan ends up on top if things continue how they have been going for the past couple weeks.
I could also be wrong.
I'm not sure if it is precedent or the facts that weigh more on my decision. When I predict Michigan State to pull it out, is that just freshman me clinging to the past where Michigan State won and you were well served to start coming to terms with that reality early? Or is this present me, looking over the numbers and thinking about the individual matchups, coming up with grounded reasons for why the game plays out like I think?
At this point in my life, I would like to think it is much more the latter than the former. I have lived almost an entire other life since I was a freshman (I'm 28 now, just about doubling up my 14/15 year old freshman self in the age department). I've seen Michigan basketball rise from the ashes as the football team fell into a three year pit of despair. My reality has been upended, shaken up, and finally cast aside as being simply another lens through which to look at something , an imperfect vision chained down by the biases of fandom and the little voice in the back of my head. Freshman me. Talking shit about things he won't understand for years.
So you'll have to excuse me. I'm still trying to put the past in the past, and finally shut up that skinny kid in baggy jeans that just knows Michigan doesn't have what it takes.
Let's go blue. Prove me wrong. Prove both of us wrong.