EAST LANSING, Mich. – Moritz Wagner spun toward a small patch of Michigan fans inside the Breslin Center -- maybe the only section of folks not searching for an exit at that moment -- with 24 seconds remaining in Saturday afternoon’s in-state rivalry game and let out a yell as he flexed.
Wagner scored a career-high 27 points in Michigan’s 82-72 toppling of No. 4 Michigan State to punctuate the end of an ugly week in East Lansing. The Spartans(16-3, 4-2 Big Ten) rolled into January looking like a prohibitive favorite to march through the Big Ten with its talent-loaded roster. After losing to Ohio State and barely holding off Rutgers in overtime at home, the league’s big, bad bully had to watch Saturday as the leader of its biggest rival celebrated at the end of two hours of pushing them around. The vibe around here changed in a hurry, and now the Big Ten’s overall pecking order looks a lot less like it is set in stone.
“Everything was going kind of smooth, but I’ve got to be my best and they’ve got to be their best,” coach Tom Izzo said. “There are going to be some ebbs and flows.”
Izzo said quelling this week’s ebb will require some soul-searching, especially from a backcourt that fell back into some bad habits against Michigan. The Spartans’ team-wide New Year’s resolution to do a better job of avoiding turnovers lasted about as long as most New Year’s resolutions. Michigan State coughed the ball up 18 times on Saturday, and the Wolverines turned those mistakes into 26 points in a game that remained close until the final minutes.
The sizzle remains for the Spartans. Senior Gavin Schilling threw down a ferocious alley-oop to end the first half, and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. had several blocks that caused fans in the first few rows to duck and cover. The offense as a whole, though, slogged through long stretches. After Schilling’s big dunk, Michigan State managed only one field goal in the next eight-plus minutes.
“If we turn the ball over, we’re going to lose,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “That’s been our problem since the jump. We still haven’t fixed that, so it’s coming back to bite us in the butt.”
Bridges and Jackson each scored 19 points in response to Izzo telling them earlier in the week that they needed to step up. Izzo said he wanted Bridges, the older of the Spartans’ two drool-worthy NBA prospects, to start playing like “more of a jerk” by taking control of games. And while Bridges was more aggressive creating his own looks at the start of the game, the rest of the offense didn’t follow.
Jackson helped keep things close by using mismatches in the paint to get to the foul line. He shot 13 free throws and made 10 of them. On the few occasions Michigan State was able to build some positive energy Saturday, Jackson was usually the catalyst. He blocked two shots on a single Michigan possession and followed that with a basket in the first half. He made a pair of free throws to give Michigan State a 55-54 lead with about eight minutes remaining.
In both cases, Michigan’s Wagner answered with a 3-pointer that sucked the wind of out the Breslin Center. Michigan coach John Beilein said Wagner, who was questionable heading into Saturday’s game after tweaking a previously injured ankle in practice two days earlier, relished his chance to play the villain role against Michigan State. Of all the players on the court Saturday, no one was bigger in big moments than Wagner.
“We answered several [times],” Beilein said. “It wasn’t like it was coaching expertise. It was good players making tough shots at tough times.”
Bridges agreed that he and his teammates were “out-toughed” by the Wolverines in their only regular season meeting this year. It stung, he said, “especially to a school like that, that doesn’t even focus on [being tough].”
Wagner’s big day pushed Michigan (15-4, 4-2 Big Ten) into the conversations of teams that are now at the very least nipping at the Spartans' heels. No. 5 Purdue dismantled Minnesota on the road Saturday for its 13th straight victory and probably will jump Michigan State in the polls this week. The Boilermakers and Ohio State, both of whom remain unbeaten in conference play, won five combined games in the past week -- four of them by at least a dozen points.
Bridges said the fix for Michigan State is simple – get tougher on defense and rebounding and stop the turnovers. Holding off the rest of the Big Ten, though, won’t be quite as easy as it seemed just a week ago.