Since losing to top-ranked Arizona in mid-December, and losing Mitch McGary indefinitely, Michigan has been playing its best basketball of the season, winning eight straight leading up to Saturday's game against the Michigan State, including finally breaking through at Wisconsin, a place it hadn't won in almost 15 years. Yet, if there was a team hotter than Michigan, it was Michigan State. Since losing to North Carolina, the Spartans had reeled off 11 consecutive victories of their own, and at 18-1, were off the best start in school history. Such was the stage for Saturday's clash in East Lansing. Michigan versus Michigan State. Both teams undefeated in conference play, the conference lead hanging in the balance. As big games go, it was hard to imagine one much bigger.
But for Michigan, whether it left East Lansing in first place was of less importance than how it handled the moment. Last season, in a similar, highly-charged atmosphere, with the crowd roaring the Spartans came out swinging - and Michigan never countered, suffering a 23-point loss that seemed much worse than that. Michigan players and coaches alike lamented that Michigan didn't display the same kind of fight the Spartans did that day. Michigan rebounded and won a hard-fought rematch in Ann Arbor later in the season, but this time the game was back at the Breslin Center, and Michigan wouldn't have Trey Burke - or Tim Hardaway Jr. or McGary - to lean on. As tests go, it's hard to imagine one much bigger than the one the Wolverines faced Saturday. How would the Wolverines react this time?
It didn't take long for that question to be answered, as the Wolverines jumped to a quick lead behind early buckets from Derrick Walton Jr. and Nik Stauskas. Michigan's lead, and any momentum, was short-lived, however, as the Spartans took the lead midway through the first half and held it for nearly 30 minutes. Led by an outstanding performance by Gary Harris and getting contributions from just about everyone else, Michigan State appeared to have secured control of the game. The Wolverines hung in, but seemed destined to do just that - battle to stay in the game. Yet with less than six minutes to play, Michigan tied the game, and an instant later had a six, then eight point lead, and was in control the rest of the way, sealing the game at the free throw line, converting 15 of 17 down the stretch.
Michigan won for many of the same reasons it has been winning all season. Stauskas and Caris LeVert, the Wolverines' two most consistent players this season, played big. Despite an inspired defensive effort by Harris, Stauskas scored 19 points on 58% shooting, including five of six beyond the arc. LeVert also continued his strong play, scoring 17 points and leading the way with eight rebounds. And as they have all season, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford played big, combining for 10 points and 8 rebounds while providing a strong presence inside. Horford's block of a Keith Appling layup attempt, one of three blocks on the night for Horford, might have been the turning point of the game. Even Max Beilfeldt saw action, and while the troika of Michigan big men did not dominate, they held their own, helping Michigan out-rebound the Spartans, 35-29.
But the bigger story, bigger than the individual performances, was that from the very beginning, Michigan was not fazed by the intensity that the Spartans - or the frenzied crowd brought. At one point, when the Spartans nearly forced a shot clock violation, the crowd was as loud as it had been all game and the Wolverines appeared to be on the ropes. However, they quickly regained their composure, forced a defensive stop and knocked down a shot to quiet the crowd.
But it wasn't just the crowd. The story of last year's game was that Michigan didn't match Michigan State's physicality, energy, or as much as some people don't like to hear it, didn't match Michigan State's toughness. It was discussed by Michigan players and coaches after the game and was still being discussed in the days leading up this year's game, as Stauskas recalled how the Spartans "punked" the Wolverines last year. That would not be the case this year. With just under eight minutes remaining and the Wolverines trailing by three, Spartan reserve Russell Byrd blocked a Glenn Robinson III shot. After the block, Byrd hovered over the fallen Robinson and gave him an earful. Not only did Robinson not back down (Robinson seemed more confused than angry by Byrd's woofing) but Morgan interceded, and after a little pushing and shoving, a lot of posturing and a couple of technical fouls, Michigan finished the game on a 30-22 run. That dust up may or may not have had an impact on the game's outcome, but it did serve to stamp an exclamation point on the difference in Michigan's play and attitude since its last visit to East Lansing.
Michigan won because it hit big shots, protected boards and made its free throws. But it also won because when push came to shove, Michigan shoved back, and in the process, moved to the top of the Big Ten standings.