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 season’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. Were those 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, however, the Wolverines are little more than a couple of tall, skinny kids, surrounded by water bug guards. They have no visible inside game — at least there wasn’t one Thursday night — and their defense, which is one way you can make up for physical shortcomings, is, to be polite, not going to make anyone forget the Pistons.

Nonetheless, Fisher is a smart coach. He knows how to teach. And considering the recruits from whom he already has commitments for next season,

Spartans fans shouldn’t gloat too much.

They can gloat a little. They own the state for 1991. They dominated the Wolverines in this Big Ten opener, and the next time they meet will be the Big Ten finale. By that point, you can bet no one will be holding his breath over the outcome.

“It was a game we should have won, and we won it,” said MSU coach Jud Heathcote, which is, if nothing else, diplomatic. Peplowski had a more candid observation. Someone said Thursday didn’t really feel like a Michigan-Michigan State night. Peplowski said: “Well, it was important for us to remember we have to play Iowa this weekend.”

So there you have it: On Green versus Blue night, one team was thinking about Black and Gold.

Can you blame them? The Spartans never trailed in this showdown. At one point they led by 23 points. They dominated the boards, and the shots they missed, they often put back in.

The second half seemed to be a showcase of alley-oop — much to the delight of the sold-out Breslin Center. Here was Mark Montgomery lofting the ball to Smith, who rammed it in, and here was Smith lobbing the ball to Steigenga, who walloped it in. Here was Peplowski, swinging his muscle around the way Gulliver might swing it in a game against the Lilliputians.

This was not last winter, when you lost your voice screaming when MSU upset the Wolverines en route to a surprisingly successful season. This was not the winter before, when Michigan flouted its star-studded cast and sent the Spartans home empty-handed.

This result, as Heathcote said, 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? And how can we help them? Only Smith seems charged up

Let’s talk about Smith for a second. He has a gorgeous shot, beautiful form and a loose, floppy body that suggests he might have been Gumby in another life. Smith is one of those players who can tuck his shirt into his shorts and two seconds later it’s out, dangling, flying. He can scoop, dunk, he can pull up and arch a beautiful touch shot. He did all that Thursday and scored 24 points, with seven rebounds and eight assists. He also had at least five long stares at his Michigan opponents after he scored a basket, as if each swish was a measure of revenge.

“I get a little charged up when it’s Michigan-Michigan State,” he admitted later. “It’s probably because the tide has turned. We’re the best basketball team in the state right now.”

Look at the films. You can’t argue with him. So save the flags. Put away the pom-poms. Before the game, I saw a Spartans fan wearing a green sweatshirt. It referred to the recent football season, with a message for Michigan fans: “Spartans 28, Wolverines 27. Deal with it.”

They may soon be printing the basketball version.

Except it won’t be that close.


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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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