ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP)—Mateen Cleaves was only a sophomore, still two years away from leading Michigan State to a national championship.
Michigan was in its first season after coach Steve Fisher’s ouster—a memorable era giving way to hard times and NCAA sanctions.
The date was Feb. 17, 1998, and that’s the last time the Spartans and Wolverines met while both were in the Top 25. That bit of trivia will finally change Tuesday night, when No. 20 Michigan hosts No. 9 Michigan State in a renewal of a rivalry that is becoming nationally significant once again.
“It has been kind of a roller coaster for both teams in some ways,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think it’s good for the rivalry. I think it’s good for the state of Michigan. … Both teams, I think, deserve to be ranked.”
Last January, Michigan was mired in a six-game losing streak before shocking Michigan State in East Lansing. It was the Wolverines’ first victory there since 1997 and the start of a late-season surge that helped Michigan reach the NCAA tournament. The Spartans made the tournament too, but 2010-11 was a disappointing season for Izzo’s team. Michigan State ended up losing both its games against the Wolverines.
Of course, Michigan senior Stu Douglass knows better than to read too much into one season.
“We’ve still got a ways to go before we get our program to the level where they’ve been at. They’ve gotten to Final Fours, and they’ve been very good the past 10, 15 years,” Douglass said. “We respect them a lot, but we can’t dwell on sweeping them last year and thinking it was the greatest thing ever. I want to go out and sweep them again this year.”
Now in its fifth season under coach John Beilein, Michigan looks ready to become a perennial NCAA tournament team again. It’s been a long road back for the program after a federal investigation revealed that now-deceased booster Ed Martin gave a handful of players more than $600,000 while they were student-athletes.
It was a sour end to a period that included two Final Four appearances by the Fab Five. Fisher lost his job in 1997 and is now the coach at San Diego State. Michigan endured sanctions and years of mediocrity, missing the NCAA tournament for 10 straight seasons before Beilein took the Wolverines back in 2009 and again last year.
Michigan State, meanwhile, has made the tournament every year since 1998, winning it in 2000 behind Cleaves and Morris Peterson.
In that February game in 1998, Michigan was ranked No. 22 when it lost 80-75 to No. 14 Michigan State. That was the start of a stretch in which the Spartans won 18 of 21 in the series—before being swept last season.
“I never want to lose to Michigan,” Spartans forward Draymond Green said. “And when I leave here, I never want to see Michigan State lose to Michigan. That’s not going to change the rest of my life. This year is where it starts.”
At the end of last year’s second meeting—in Ann Arbor—Michigan’s Darius Morris and Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas appeared to exchange words, with Lucas then tossing the ball in Morris’ direction. Neither player is back this season, but emotions will be running high as always.
“Do I respect John Beilein? Tremendously. Do I respect their school? Tremendously,” Izzo said. “Do I like them? Not one bit.”
Izzo’s Spartans have bounced back with a vengeance after last season. Michigan State (15-3, 4-1 Big Ten) had won 15 games in a row before losing at Northwestern on Saturday. Green is averaging 15.8 points and 10.1 rebounds a game.
As usual, the Spartans are formidable rebounders, and they’re holding opponents to 38 percent shooting. Michigan State is shooting 48 percent, up five points from a season ago.
Izzo is two wins shy of his 400th.
Tuesday night’s game figures to be a study in contrasts. While Michigan State thrives on relentless effort around the basket, Michigan (14-4, 4-2) is comfortable on the perimeter. The Wolverines will often have four 3-point threats on the court at a time but are also adept at cutting to the hoop for opportunities inside. Freshman Trey Burke has done a nice job replacing Morris at point guard, and Tim Hardaway Jr. can score points in bunches.
The Wolverines lost Saturday at Iowa, meaning like Michigan State, they’ll be eager to take the court again as soon as possible.
“They come out swinging. We’re going to come out swinging too,” Michigan forward Zack Novak said. “This is Michigan-Michigan State. We’re going to come out with all we’ve got. I’m sure they’re going to come out with all they’ve got. That’s why the game’s fun to watch.”