by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

EAST LANSING — The screamers can take the year off. Save your voices. Save the gas. The Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry, which, when it’s good, is really good, is no better than lopsided this winter, one of those years when the light shines in only one direction. Green light. Spartans go. The Wolverines will spend most of their season just trying to get across the street.

This is OK, even though some Michigan fans probably crawled under the bed after Thursday night. If you hadn’t bothered to look at this year’s U-M team before its 85-70 defeat, you are probably shaking your head now, the way people do after they’ve just seen a sick friend for the first time. Was that really the Wolverines? I hardly recognized them. My God, when did they get so weak?

Try graduation day last spring. When Michigan said good-bye to Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills and Loy Vaught, they weren’t just giving up the inventory, they were giving up the store. The keys. The lease. The whole baby. They are tadpoles now, at the beginning of the evolution process.

On top of that, like tadpoles, they are small. Real small. Watching guys like Demetrius Calip and Michael Talley (the starting guards, both 6-foot-1) try to match magic with guys like Steve Smith (6-7) Mike Peplowski (6-10) and Matt Steigenga (6-7) is like watching little fish trying to swim past sharks. You saw it in the first half Thursday night, when Michigan State had more than twice the rebounds and four times the points in the paint.

“When they shoved, we moved,” lamented U-M coach Steve Fisher.

Yeah. Right out of the picture.

Michigan State owns the state

As I said, this is OK, because in college, teams are like volcanoes. They erupt, then go dormant, then erupt again. Michigan, which two years ago won the national championship, will mature — it has no other way to go. Right now, U-M is little more than a couple of tall, skinny kids, surrounded by a few water bug guards. But Fisher is a smart coach. He knows how to teach. And considering the incoming recruits he has already pocketed for next season, Spartans fans shouldn’t gloat too much.

They can gloat a little. This will be their year, at least around here. They own I-75. They own I-96. They own the state.

“It didn’t seem like a typical Michigan-Michigan State game,” someone observed to Peplowski when it was over.

“Well, it was important for us to remember we have to play Iowa this weekend,” he said.

So there you have the state of the state address in basketball, right: On Green vs. Blue night, one team is thinking about Black and Gold.

You can hardly blame them. After all, this game belonged to the Spartans right from the start. They never trailed. They dominated the boards, they hogged all the second-chance opportunities, and half the game seemed to be spent setting up alley-oop passes that they slammed home, much to the delight of the sold-out arena.

It seemed to be more of a show than anything else, a demonstration by the Spartans in their Big Ten opener. So here was Smith lobbing the ball to Steigenga, who walloped it in. Here was Peplowski, swinging his wide girth around like Gulliver might swing it in a game against the Lilliputians.

It was not last year, where you lost your voice screaming when MSU upset the Wolverines en route to a surprisingly successful season. This was not close. This was expected. To be honest, the only real surprise was U-M’s record coming in. It was 7-3. Here is what I want to know: Who were the seven?

Only Smith seems charged up

Let’s talk about Smith for a second. He has a gorgeous shot, beautiful form, and one of those floppy bodies that suggest he might have been Gumby in another life. He is one of those players who can tuck his shirt into his shorts and two seconds later it’s out, dangling, flying, because this is not a body you can tuck in. He has 24 points, which is just average for him this year. About the only negative is that he spent a little too much time staring down the Wolverines after each basket, as if taking a measure of revenge. This really wasn’t necessary, because the game wasn’t much of a contest.

“I guess I get a little charged up when it’s Michigan- Michigan State,” he admitted later. “Sometimes I may do that stuff too much. But I guess it’s because the tide has turned. We’re the best basketball team in the state right now.”

You can’t argue with him. Put away the pom-pons. Save your banners and flags for another, more equal year. This will be the season for many interesting things in Big Ten basketball, but Blue challenging Green will not be part of it.

Before the game, I saw a Spartans fan wearing a green sweatshirt. It referred to the football season, with a message for Michigan fans. It read
“Spartans 28, Wolverines 27. Deal with it.”

This year, anyhow, the same will hold true for basketball.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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