They both won. They both advanced. And nobody will confuse them with each other.
On a red-letter day in our state’s college basketball history, Michigan and Michigan State played within hours of each other on the same court in the same building in the same round of the NCAA tournament.
The Spartans won with big men and rebounding.
The Wolverines won by rocket launching three-pointers.
And yet, there were surprises Thursday at the Palace. Let’s begin with Michigan — Trey Burke had six points! — which played an evening game before a raucous pro-blue crowd — Trey Burke had six points! — and the headline of this game was … Trey Burke had six points!
And the Wolverines won handily.
Michigan 71, South Dakota State 56. So much for pregame story lines. This was as far off script as you can get, like seeing Bruce Willis in a ballet, or Justin Bieber in “Death of a Salesman.” Burke was just voted the national player of the year. He averages 19.2 points per game. His lowest output all year was still double digits.
And he had six points?
Yes. And the Wolverines still thumped the Jackrabbits because 1) Burke’s teammates shot as great as he shot poorly, 2) Mitch McGary played big and 3) SDSU’s superstar, Nate Wolters, hardly looked like a superstar, going 3-for-14 and making fans wonder, “What’s the big fuss about?”
“I wasn’t frustrated at all,” Burke said after his awful 2-for-12 shooting night. “I knew that my shot wasn’t falling, and I just tried to contribute in different ways. We had different hot hands tonight: Tim, Nik, Glenn, Mitch.”
In other words, every other starter.
Teammates save day
Which, truth be told, is probably good for the Wolverines. If anything, they have been too dependent on Burke this year.
On Thursday, they proved they could win when Burke was as effective shooting as Dennis Rodman is at diplomacy. Take out Burke’s 10 misses, and the other Wolverines shot better than 60% from the floor.
“We just played through this,” U-M coach John Beilein said. “Someone asked me when (Trey) was 0-for-7 at halftime, I said that means he’ll probably be 7-for-7 in the second half.
“He still didn’t do that.”
And it didn’t matter. Credit Glenn Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr. (or as some might call them, “The Second Coming”) for dead-eye shooting from long range. Both had 21 points. Robinson missed just one shot all night; Hardaway hit five three-pointers. The two of them stroke the ball so sweetly you think you hear violins. McGary was big inside and with slams and soft jumpers, plus he grabbed nine rebounds.
As for Wolters, the Jackrabbits’ senior point guard and greatest player in school history who was supposed to challenge Burke in an anticipated shoot-out — can I say what everyone is thinking?
This is the guy?
I’m assuming he looks a lot better against Summit League competition, because against Michigan, he spent a lot of time floating on the perimeter, wasn’t effective driving and hardly created any offense. He didn’t sink a single three-pointer. He turned it over three times and had one steal. He finished with an uninspiring 10 points. Pundits were calling Wolters sure-fire NBA talent. He looked pretty lost on an NBA floor Thursday night.
No matter. In the Maize and Blue journey, he is history now. The future is Saturday, against Virginia Commonwealth. And once more, experts are predicting an upset.
Then again, these are the same people who thought Burke and Wolters would combine for 100 points.
MSU from cold to hot
OK. Let’s talk Spartans. They, too, proved that Big Ten warfare is different than mid-major excellence. And they should be congratulated. Not only did they dispatch underdog Valparaiso, but even winning, they managed to steam Tom Izzo to a boil.
That’s because when you play an inferior team, you often become inferior.
And that makes Izzo mad.
“I was really pleased with about 33, 34 minutes of that game,” Izzo admitted after MSU’s 65-54 victory in the early session. “The first couple minutes were a little sluggish and the last five were a little disgusting.”
To be fair, he had reason to fume. Valpo, reportedly a great shooting team, was missing nearly everything it tried early, but MSU was trying too many things it shouldn’t. Bad lob. Bad feed. Blown lay-ups. It took the Spartans almost three minutes to score their first basket; by that point they had three turnovers.
On it muddled, like a game started too early (which, at 12:15 p.m., it was) until, with nearly nine minutes gone, it was a tedious 8-8 tie. Then freshman Gary Harris, whose value increases to this team every week, made a smooth three-pointer, the crowd awoke, and with that, Michigan State seemed to pull the Valpo gum off its shoes.
A 24-4 run ensued, the Crusaders looked scared and tight, and the fate of the game was sealed. But the player of the game was still a work in progress: Derrick Nix, the senior center, who is likely the key to how far MSU will go in this tournament. If he plays as big as he is, the Spartans have a real shot at the Final Four. If he disappears — especially against a Duke or Louisville — MSU will, too, no matter what Keith Appling does.
Nix has his way
On Thursday, Nix started the game badly, missing his first two lay-ups. Izzo yanked him early. But as the game went on, the Spartans kept feeding him, and he kept going to the rim, and pretty soon he was like a machine, laying up from left, right and under. He’d get a rebound, put it up, miss, get the rebound, put it back. He scored in streaks, and would finish with 23 points and 15 rebounds, which left him the talk of the postgame.
“It’s my last go around,” he said, “and I’m not ready to be done yet.”
Let’s be honest: Nix would not have gotten those numbers against a stronger team. Valpo had no answers for his strength inside and a few times Nix played pat-a-cake with his own shots. He needs to keep his engines fully throttled for the Spartans to threaten a championship.
Meanwhile, the big and beefy senior continues to be a foil for Izzo’s tough love philosophy. When, after the game, Nix told the media that Izzo sometimes doesn’t understand “that being double-teamed is frustrating” Izzo grinned ear to ear, one of those “Wait’ll we get to practice, kid, I’ll show you frustrating.”
But later, Izzo spoke thoughtfully and sympathetically about his center, saying Nix “doesn’t have an answer where he’s going … two months from now. … He’s almost scared sometimes, like a big teddy bear, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ “
Late in the game, with the victory in hand, Izzo took Nix out. But the big guy protested, saying, “Coach, you know, this is one of the last times I’m playing.” So a few minutes later, Izzo put him back in “because I thought, you know what? That’s kind of how I want him. I want him hungry.”
Yes. A hungry Nix is a good thing for the Spartans, who play Memphis in the next round Saturday, and a hungry Burke (how could he not be hungry after six points Thursday night?) is a good thing for the Wolverines.
And having them both in action is a good thing for this state. It was fun to see the Palace energized and good to hear only cheering for the hometown kids, no rivalry booing, no insulting noise.
We have one more of these luxurious doubleheaders Saturday, our two biggest college hoops programs, playing within driving distance. The competition will be better, and the challenge should be tougher. Some hometown hysteria would be awfully helpful.
After all, as Izzo said of Nix, you don’t know where they’re going. But for now, the Spartans and Wolverines are here, and it’s a kick to watch their March dreams nourished in the comfort of our own backyard.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.