In 2008, I went to Ann Arbor for the MSU-Michigan football game with my buddy — a U-M fan. We were walking through the tailgate where Michigan Stadium and Crisler Arena meet, when my buddy's brother says, "Is that John Beilein?"
It was. He was just kind of standing around by himself. Maybe he was meeting someone there. Most of the Michigan fans didn't seem to notice — or care — that he was there. The Wolverines were coming off a 10-22 debut year under Beilein, and the basketball program remained an afterthought.
We walked over to Beilen and introduced ourselves, me wearing a Drew Stanton jersey. I don't know if he squeezed my hand extra hard or just has a strong grip. My buddy's brother asked about the upcoming season and how things were looking (Michigan would end up going 21-14 and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament). Somehow, we got on the topic of the state of the program.
He talked about some difficulties recruiting, mostly the "Soviet-era facilities" Michigan had "compared to what they have over there" as he looked at me, referencing MSU's facilities. But overall, Beilein liked what was building. It's easy to say now that I knew he would finally turn Michigan into a contender, but I did. And he has.
Tuesday night, MSU and Michigan will meet on the hardwood as top-10 teams for the first time ever. Just the ninth time as ranked teams. Beilein's goal wasn't to "take back the state." It was to turn Michigan into the contender it should have been. Beilein won some games, the facilities finally were improved, and the foundation has been set. The turning point of the program was ending the losing streak at Breslin in 2011.
Now, this rivalry finally has the equal talent to match the equal hatred.
Tuesday is a huge factor for both teams' Big Ten hopes. An MSU win puts the Wolverines two games back with six to play and keeps the pressure on Indiana. A Michigan win pulls them even with the Spartans and just two difficult games remaining: home matchups with MSU and Indiana.
A little more than a week removed from a No. 1 rankings, Michigan comes in having played three straight tough games: a loss at Indiana, a home overtime win against Ohio State and an overtime loss at Wisconsin. I'd put a little asterisk on the Wisconsin loss, because the only reason the game went to overtime was this.
I mean, yes, Michigan should have tried to foul better, but it's still a very lucky shot. Still, it was a gift for MSU, and the Spartans have a chance to take advantage.
Michigan is No. 4 in KenPom and brings in the No. 2 offense (which was No. 1 for a long time).
The Wolverines shoot 39.7 percent on 3s (No. 10) and 54.6 percent on 2s (No. 9). They also take care of the ball, with a 14.6 percent turnover rate, which is No. 1 in the country. Although MSU doesn't force a high amount of turnovers on defense, they are No. 20 in steal percentage. Branden Dawson is especially active on the perimeter passes. Don't be surprised if Michigan has some backdoor cuts ready for him.
It all starts with Trey Burke, who unfortunately followed his heart back to school last offseason. The national player of the year candidates has scored at least 15 points in every Big Ten game and averages 18.2 points, 7.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game (get ready for the Magic Johnson stat in the broadcast). As good as Burke was last year, his poise has improved immensely, and he rarely makes a poor decision (1.8 turnovers per game). With his size, he relies on the pick-and-roll and can shoot, drive and score or drive and dish.
In last year's matchup at Breslin, MSU's big men were terrific at defending it, and Burke finished with 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting with four assists and four turnovers (compared to 20, 3 and 3 in Ann Arbor earlier in the year).
Burke's top partner-in-crime is quintessential NBA prototype Tim Hardaway Jr. I say that because he's a 6-foot-6 guard who has found his three-point shooting touch this year (16.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 44 percent from 3). While some other starters' numbers have gone down, Hardaway has picked it up, averaging 19.6 points in the last three games, shooting 10-for-19 on 3s. He'll be an interesting matchup for MSU. Because he's tall, Branden Dawson may end up on him when MSU has a big lineup, though Gary Harris could see some time, too.
Elsewhere in the starting lineup, Nik Stauskas (12.1 points, 47 percent from 3) and Glenn Robinson III (11.3 points, 5.5 rebounds) have slowed recently. It could be a freshman wall, it could be just better competition. I see Harris and Stauskas guarding each other and shooting 3s over each other. MSU would like to have the edge in this area. Robinson III will be matched up with Payne and could have a very tough time. Robinson seems to have disappeared in recent games, but Payne will be a completely different matchup.
At center, Jordan Morgan (5.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.7 OR%) has missed some games with an ankle injury. It it yet to be seen if he will play. But highly-touted recruit Mitch McGary is starting to come into his own. He hasn't started a game yet, but is getting the minutes. On the year, he's averaging 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds, but he has scored in double figures in the past three games with Morgan out and has an OR% of 17.0, which is No. 10 in the country.
I'd like to say McGary hasn't faced an inside duo with MSU's size, but the Spartans are just seventh in the Big Ten in OR% and third in opponent OR%. MSU has owned the rebounding battle against U-M over the past 15+ years, and they'll need to do it in this one. MSU opponents are also shooting 49.1 percent on 2s, which is the highest in the conference.
The Wolverines are one of the worst teams in the country in getting to the free-throw line. Keith Appling has been getting in foul trouble recently. That could spell doom in this one if it happens again.
Defensively, the Wolverines are a decent, but not spectacular, No. 32 in KenPom. Opponents shoot 32.1 percent on 3s (No. 100) and 47.1 percent on 2s (No. 163). But in conference play, it's 48.3 percent on 2s, which is just 10th in the Big Ten. This is obviously the best bet for MSU, as it was against Purdue: Feed it to Nix, he takes it up or passes it out for an open look, hit some three-pointers.
On the year, Michigan's turnover rate on defense is just 19.3 percent, and it's down to 18.4 percent in conference play. MSU has been taking better care of the ball in the last three games, and that will need to continue.
Michigan is No. 2 in the country in preventing opponents from getting to the line. Some home-cooking officiating would be nice.
All in all, it would appear MSU has an advantage inside, while Michigan has the advantage with the backcourt. If one unit can at least make it a wash against the other team, it may be the difference between a win and a loss.
On the injury front, everyone not named Travis Trice appears to be as healthy as they can be. Gary Harris didn't practice the day before Purdue and hurt his back again. Along with the shoulders, it is what it is. He's not going to be able to drive like he could earlier in the year, but MSU needs him to keep hitting from 3 (42 percent on the year).
It doesn't sound like Trice will be available, which means MSU need another good performance from Denzel Valentine. Matt Costello, Russell Byrd and Alex Gauna have gotten increased minutes in recent games. Will that happen in this game? Against Michigan's style of offense, I tend to think no, but you never know. It someone gets in foul trouble, it could happen.
KenPom has this as a 66-65 Michigan win, giving MSU a 45 percent chance, so pretty close to a pick-em. In my Q&A with Maize N Brew, I picked MSU by two, but I wouldn't be surprised by a Michigan win.
It certainly should be a good one. The whiteout at Breslin will be rocking (and I'll be there for the first time this season).
Most didn't expect MSU to be in this position 11 games into the conference season, and the road ahead is still treacherous, but while MSU is starting to get some more national respect in this conference race, they have a chance to truly put themselves in a position to win it, all while keeping the state's basketball pecking order in place.