Michigan completes sweep of Michigan State to advance to Big Ten title game

Abbie Parr/Getty Images
2 Comments

NEW YORK — The biggest shot of the game came with 2:48 left on Saturday afternoon.

30-feet away from the rim with the shot clock down to two, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman rattled home a three that kissed the rim three different times, dying against the glass before falling through the net.

The biggest defensive play of the game came just 15 seconds left, when Abdur-Rahkman drew an offensive foul on Miles Bridges. Michigan had the ball back, up 62-54 with just over two minutes as Madison Square Garden turned into Crisler Arena. By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Michigan had upset top-seeded Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, 75-64, completing a season sweep of the Spartans and advancing to the finals of the Big Ten tournament for the second time in as many seasons.

For John Beilein, who took the Wolverines to the 2013 national title game were they lost to Louisville nobody, he’s on the verge of another feather in the cap for what has been a sensational career as a tournament coach. He reached the Sweet 16 last season. He reached the Elite 8 the year after he lost Trey Burke. He took West Virginia to the Elite 8 and the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons, and also won the NIT with the Mountaineers. He won a game as a No. 14 seed with Richmond way back in 1998.

So seeing Beilein win three games in three days, sweeping their in-state rivals in the process, to end up playing for the right to call themselves back-to-back Big Ten tournament champions is not necessarily a surprise.

What may actually be a surprise is that the Wolverines may have just played their way into a position where getting seeded above Michigan State, one of the preseason favorites to cut down the nets, is a realistic possibility.

While that probably says more about the strength of the Big Ten and the randomness that comes with a league that doesn’t play a full round-robin schedule than anything else, it does present an interesting conversation to have: Just how good is Michigan State?

And is there something that the Spartans can fix over the course of the next 12 days to fix that?

The answer to the first question is easier to answer: Really good, and in the context of a season where the best teams in the country are all flawed in some major way, the Spartans could very well be college basketball’s best. To put it another way, they are not going to be a team that any No. 1 seed wants to draw in their region.

“The one thing that I would remind everybody, this team has won 12 games in a row and 29 games this season,” head coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “And through some trying times.”

“Now, do we have to get it back on track? Yeah, we do.”

Cassius Winston was not himself this weekend, particularly against Michigan, where he finished 3-for-10 from the floor and struggled to break down Michigan off the dribble. Winston entered NYC shooting 56.5 percent from three. He’ll leave having made just one of 11 from beyond the arc in the Garden.

Nick Ward wasn’t himself, either, as his issues defensively and with immobility against teams that can play small limited him to 25 minutes in the two games. Josh Langford hasn’t played well for two months, and Michigan State’s experiment with playing small — Jaren Jackson at the five, Miles Bridges at the four — seems to have died on the vine.

And all of that came while losing a game that resulted in a sweep against their in-state rival.

“We’re just going to try and move on,” Bridges said.

“It was a big game, but it’s not the end of our season,” added Winston. “There’s still another big goal that we’re very capable of achieving.”

There will be time to figure this out. If Michigan State gets put into a pod where they play Friday-Sunday, they will be looking at a 13-day layoff between the end of their Big Ten tournament run and the start of an NCAA tournament run. Izzo may not need to reinvent the wheel, but he’ll certainly have enough time to do so.

“I haven’t ever been through that,” Izzo said, meantioning that the team might head to Chicago to see Denzel Valentine play. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. And the best part is we’re on spring break next week. So we might just go to the beach in East Lansing, see if we can play a little beach basketball.”

“It will be the one time in my life the NCAA has no rules on us. We’re on break and we don’t have any games. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s never happened to me, so knowing me, I’m going to take advantage of that.”