EAST LANSING – Brady Hoke took a bath of boos, but kept on walking, finding a seat beneath a Michigan State fan in a green frog hat. Matthew Stafford tried for anonymity and failed – “MAT-THEW STAF-FORD!” the student section screamed. Mark Dantonio heard thunderous cheering as he walked down the aisle – you’d have thought the next pope had just been chosen.
And all this was before warm-ups.
Big Game, Big Names. Here was The Basketball Game in our great state, Tuesday night, Michigan versus Michigan State in their first-ever battle as top 10-ranked teams. All signs pointed to a close game.
But signs are just signs.
Big Game, Big Men. The Spartans won this thing – “crushed it” if you’re under 25 – because right from the start, their frontcourt played huge. Forward Branden Dawson was in the paint so much, he had to shower with turpentine. And center Derrick Nix so easily had his way with whomever Michigan put on him, it was like watching a Mack truck against an orange cone.
On top of that, MSU had a choking defense that was a force field from the perimeter on in. Michigan had such trouble getting the ball inside, a two-point jump shot seemed like real penetration.
The Wolverines, despite Hoke, Lloyd Carr and ranking alumnus Gov. Rick Snyder in the stands, seemed unsure and unsteady, turning the ball over 16 times, with shaky passes and dribbles off the leg.
“We On” their shirts read.
“You Off!” the crowd screamed.
MSU comes up big
“It was like the perfect storm,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said afterward. “We played about as well as we can play and they did not play so well.”
One look at the final score (75-52) pretty much confirmed that. You could cite all kinds of reasons for this Michigan State blowout, but you have to begin with Nix.
The senior co-captain was on fire. He carries an awful lot of beef up and down the floor, but on Tuesday he was positively airborne. He backed in. He powered for rebounds. He went up right, got blocked, stayed with it and laid it up lefty. He finished with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists, and I swear a few times I actually heard his footsteps.
“That was one of my best games,” he admitted. His performance was equaled only by Gary Harris (17 points, three assists, three steals). The freshman guard out of Indiana not only shot the lights out from three point range, but played a relentless defense that helped lead to an awful night for Michigan’s backcourt.
“This is how I’ve always been…” Harris said of his calmness. “…relaxed and focused at the same time.”
To be honest, it’s hard to find fault with anything the Spartans did Tuesday night. Their shooting was great, their defense was unrelenting, they fed their big men, they shot key three pointers, they fed off the insanity of the Breslin Center yet moved with the comfort of a well-worn sneaker.
With just under seven minutes left in the game, the Spartans were winning by 30 points.
Thirty points? Against a team that, just a blink ago, was ranked No. 1 in the nation?
Big Game, Big Surprise.
U-M falls down big
Which leads us to Michigan. How would you deal with its performance Tuesday night? There’s not enough Tylenol in the world.
“That’s the worst we played in a long, long time,” U-M coach John Beilein said. One loss is one loss, that’s the good news; the bad is that there have been two such losses in U-M’s last four games – all of them to top 10 teams. The Wolverines (21-4) are likely to fall out of that group now, and are in dire straits when it comes to any dreams of a Big Ten title.
Perhaps most concerning to U-M – in addition to how guards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III disappeared Tuesday night (take Trey Burke off this squad and the sails start flapping) is the way MSU’s big men plowed through them. The Spartans aren’t the only team in America with a frontcourt.
A season-low 52 points, a season-high 16 turnovers, by far the most lopsided loss of the year? Said Beilein, “We couldn’t get anywhere we wanted to get to.”
I’d be surprised if they made it back to Ann Arbor without having to change buses.
Big Game, Big Blowout. You can’t judge a season by one night, and these teams will meet again in the first weekend in March. It should be a lot closer.
It couldn’t get any further apart.