Michigan State coach Tom Izzo grabbed the early headlines in this Big Ten tournament when he reached a major milestone — 600 career victories — against Ohio State in Friday’s quarterfinals at the United Center.
His counterpart at Michigan, John Beilein — who could be flirting with 600 himself this time next year — hopes his team will steal the headlines from Izzo and the rival Spartans when it really counts, Sunday afternoon with the championship on the line.
And both men want the whole world to know that Spartans-Wolverines is right up there with one of the best rivalries in all of sports, and certainly the greatest one the college game has ever known — Duke vs. North Carolina.
After the league’s No. 1-seeded Spartans (27-6) squeezed the daylights out of Wisconsin 67-55 and the No. 3-seeded Wolverines (28-6) kicked Minnesota’s doors in 76-49 in Saturday’s semifinal games, the Big Ten’s best two coaches — pick your 1-2 order — tag-teamed their way into the center of that ring.
“I think we’re on the exact same page, that [we’d like to] make this into a Duke-Carolina game,” Izzo said. “And I’m not saying we’ve gotten there yet, because some of that is over a test of time. But whenever you’re playing in games that matter in the state, that’s big. Matters in the conference, that’s big. When it starts to matter nationally, then you’ve got yourself something special.”
Beilein took it even further.
“It’s not as sexy as the North Carolina-Duke game,” he said. “We may not have [as many] NBA players here or Hollywood stars, but that’s OK. That’s OK. But it rivals it 100 percent.”
No doubt, we’ll get the kind of title-game matchup the Big Ten can brag about. And it’ll come with much of the basketball world watching as it leads directly into NCAA Tournament selection shows. Michigan State even has an outside chance to win and grab the final No. 1 seed from the selection committee.
This is Michigan State, the only school with five league tourney titles, looking to make it a half-dozen. This is Michigan, no stranger to high-level success, going for consecutive title No. 3. This is the best the Big Ten gets. It isn’t Tobacco Road, but there’s some seriously good stuff going on along Interstate 96.
Alas, there’s also this to consider. The Big Ten still hasn’t won a national championship since the Spartans pulled it off in 2000 (although Maryland won it in 2002 as a member of the ACC). To “date” that another way: That clinching victory gave Izzo all of 120 for his career. He was practically a baby.
Meanwhile, Duke and North Carolina haves three national titles each since 2000. Since we’re already counting, Connecticut also has three, followed by Florida and Villanova with two apiece. Seven Big Ten teams — including the Spartans in 2009 and the Wolverines in 2013 and 2018 — have been runners-up, but just try constructing a trophy out of that ocean of tears.
The Big Ten doesn’t have to hang its collective head. Bracketologists agree the conference should get eight teams into the Big Dance. That likely would be as many as the big, bad ACC, and more than any other league.
Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland and Iowa are ready to take their shots. Minnesota solidified its standing by winning a pair of games in Chicago. Ohio State almost surely locked up a berth by beating Indiana, and the Buckeyes are a completely different team with post man Kaleb Wesson back from a suspension.
And there’ll be plenty on the line Sunday. For one thing, the Wolverines are trying to avoid going 0-3 in the season series.
“I’m so excited to get this opportunity again,” Ignas Brazdeikis said. “We have to embrace this opportunity because we might not play them again. We have to get our revenge. It’s our revenge tour.”
Spartans point guard Cassius Winston, who has 50 points in two games against Michigan, isn’t having it.
“Just another chance at a championship,” he said. “That’s what we play for here. That’s what it’s all about at Michigan State.”
Conference championships, no doubt about it. Beyond that? There has been a whole lot of swinging and missing. Until that changes, Izzo and Beilein might want to show more deference to a college basketball rivalry that’s even better than Bears-Packers, even better than Yankees-Red Sox and even better — a lot better — than Michigan-Ohio State has been in football for a long time.
Sorry, fellas. That’s just the way it is.