Michigan closer to Michigan State

John Beilein and Tom Izzo both know that a Michigan-Michigan State rivalry is good for the state. AP Photo/Tony Ding

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In that moment, Zack Novak knew his Michigan basketball team's victory over Michigan State on that Thursday night was big. It was January 2011, and his team desperately needed a win.

But better yet, that win had come in East Lansing.

It had been 1,181 days since Michigan basketball or football had beaten their Spartans counterparts, a fact the team -- and country, as TV cameras panned the crowd -- was reminded of by the four students with their chests painted green "1 -- 1 -- 8 -- 1" in the front row of the Izzone.

Michigan, as a program, had lost 11 straight in the Breslin Center. And Michigan, as a team, had lost six straight that January.

The team bus had arrived late in East Lansing because of the weather and the Wolverines only had 40 minutes to warm up. Novak remembered running onto the court and feeling thrown off -- there wouldn't be enough time for the Wolverines' regular warm-up, so a shortened version would have to do.

In retrospect, maybe that helped. Maybe that's why Michigan simply played, didn't think. Maybe that's why the Wolverines were so loose. Maybe that's why they won in East Lansing, 61-57. And maybe, that's why the program has been so successful since.

Since that win, the Michigan basketball program has gone 65-23 (34-15 in Big Ten play) and Michigan State has gone 63-25 (34-17 in Big Ten play).

"Looking back, if we don't win that game, it's plausible to say that none of this happens," Novak said. "Things could've shook out a much different way, but that kind of spring-boarded us. You look back to that time in the program and we've taken off. It has been completely different since that game."

It was a single game that has turned a tide of sorts and created a unique matchup -- one that draws a national audience but is between two in-state and in-conference teams.

In college basketball there are so few rivalries that exist inter-conference and in-state that interest a national audience. There is Duke-North Carolina, Indiana-Purdue, Kansas-Kansas State, UCLA-USC, Arizona-Arizona State. But only one of those generally produces competitive games of late (and always), and it's what has implanted the Duke-UNC rivalry into the forefront of every college basketball fans' brain.

Even in Texas, even in California, even in Alaska, basketball fans will tune in to watch the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels. And if fans live close enough, they can make it to each and every game in person.

Michigan and Michigan State are on the verge of being able to produce something similar -- they split a state's loyalty, split a conference's loyalty and produce on-court play the nation wants to see.

"I think all that is good for not only Michigan and Michigan State, not only for the state of Michigan, not only for the Big Ten," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "In that respect, I think it's good for college basketball."

When two schools are so close in proximity and play in the same conference, the game is able to tell so many stories.

Zak Irvin and Gary Harris played together at Hamilton Southeastern (Fishers, Ind.). Glenn Robinson III and Branden Dawson played AAU ball together. Keith Appling and Jordan Morgan both came up through the Detroit metro basketball ranks.

The ties that exist between these two programs are deep and have only grown stronger since that major Michigan victory in East Lansing.

Because up until that point, Michigan State had long owned the state of Michigan for basketball. Izzo was its leader, and rightfully so.

In the decade leading up to that night, Michigan had gone 3-13 against the Spartans. And in those three games, the Wolverines' win margin was just six points per game. Michigan State, on the other hand, had won each of its games by a comfortable 15-point margin.

So when Michigan coach John Beilein arrived at Michigan in 2007, much of the focus of the job was on Michigan State. What could the Wolverines do to put up more of a fight? What could they do to make it a rivalry?

"It was this big thing with Michigan State," Beilein said. "But I thought, let's worry about Michigan, because wouldn't it be wonderful if we were both top-10 teams? For so many years it had been one or the other in the limelight, and now, all of a sudden, to have three consecutive years like we've had when both teams are at the top of the Big Ten, both teams are advancing in the NCAA for the most part."

Before Beilein and Izzo even faced off on the court, Izzo invited him and then-Michigan women's basketball coach Kevin Borseth to East Lansing to tour MSU's facilities.

Beilein, who had come from West Virginia, had thought the Wolverines' facilities were pretty nice. When he saw Michigan State's, which he described as a "Taj Mahal," he realized the Wolverines weren't just behind on the court -- they were also behind in the locker room, the weight room, the practice courts.

So Michigan began to renovate its facilities to make sure it was competing with Michigan State on every level.

And finally, on Jan. 27, 2011, behind big performances Novak and Darius Morris, the Wolverines began to tilt the scales toward level on the court. And since, that's what this rivalry has become.

In 2011-12 and 2012-13, the two teams split, 2-2, each team winning on its home floor.

"It's hard to have a rivalry if one team isn't participating. And we were that team when I first took over," said Izzo, who became Spartans head coach in 1995. "Then it went the other way and now it's probably where it's supposed to be, where it should be."

But creating a few good years of rivalry is nothing special. Even Kansas-Kansas State has done that in the past. To be a true rivalry that matters on the level to a state, conference and country like Duke-UNC, the competition and excitement needs to be kept alive.

So while the two teams could meet two, three or four times this season, the biggest test will come over the next decade, to see if this will be sustained and if the game can keep the interest of the state and country.

"If the day comes where this is respected like Duke-North Carolina," Izzo said, "then I guess we set a hell of a foundation for the people to follow in the future."