Thomas: Michigan State, opponent of many, rival of none

Rivalry weekend is an amazing weekend to be a college football fan. Across the country, college football teams line up against their biggest rivals. Some of these contests are more lopsided recently, with the Georgia-Georgia Tech or Clemson-South Carolina games coming to mind, but the hate is still strong between the two teams. And in most of these regular season finale contests, the records simply don’t matter. Minnesota-Wisconsin, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Alabama-Auburn, the rivalries are fierce, the games are classics, and the college football fan is content to sit on their couch and watch some of the most intensely contested games of the season.

Of course, there’s the greatest rivalry of them all as well. Often the site of College Gameday that weekend, Michigan and Ohio State do battle at the end of each regular season. The hate between these two teams is unmatched, so much that Ohio State, and indeed much of the state of Ohio, replaces the letter “M” with a giant ‘X’ in all signs and tweets leading up to the game. But then what about the hate between Michigan and Michigan State? Well, as much as the Spartans would like you to believe this is a true rivalry, it quite simply has not been, and it likely never will be. Michigan States’ rivalry-weekend match-up? It varies; last year it was Maryland, the two years prior it was Rutgers – a couple of cellar-dwelling Big 10 teams for Michigan State to beat up on while their hated rivals goes and plays their biggest game of the year with someone else. 

Michigan States’ inability to get a true rivalry-weekend match-up, or even a rivalry with anybody, goes well beyond the Michigan saga. If you look up Michigan State rivals, you get a list of just four teams: Michigan, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Penn State. Not an inspiring list, especially considering every single one of these teams has bigger rivals.
The Spartans’ biggest hope comes in Penn State, another team who may lack a true rival. But the Nittany Lions don’t care, often proclaiming themselves as their biggest rivals, competing against the premier Penn State teams of previous decades. Plus, Penn State has big games closer to home in Pitt and Maryland, a more historic rivalry in Nebraska, and a budding rivalry with Ohio State. They don’t need Michigan State. 

How about Notre Dame? There’s been some big games, and there is no doubt about that, but Michigan State has tried to fuel this rivalry far more than Notre Dame, and it’s hard to do that when you have a .373 winning percentage against them. The Spartans’ planted their flag at Notre Dame’s home stadium after a 2005 win, and they won in 2010 on the infamous “Little Giant” fake field goal. But, Notre Dame has their rivalries with USC and Michigan, their uninterrupted series with Navy, and the Holy War with BC. In a recent survey of their student body, Notre Dame didn’t even vote for the Spartans as one of their top-6 rivals. Ouch. They clearly don’t need Michigan State. 

Indiana? To be honest, even if Michigan State could consider Indiana a rival, it wouldn’t be saying much. The Hoosiers are far more known for their basketball prowess, and they have not ever really been particularly relevant in football. They have never eclipsed nine wins in a season, and they haven’t even reached that mark since 1967. Plus, Indiana has their own in-state rivalry with Purdue, so even they’ve got bigger fish to fry than the Spartans. If that’s Michigan State’s best rival, it’s a pretty sad one for a big-name program with six national championships. 

And that brings the list full circle to Michigan. The Wolverines will call Michigan State “Little Brother” and for good reason. Despite some recent success in the series, the Spartans are just 36-71 against Michigan, good for a .344 winning percentage. It’s embarrassing, and it’s more embarrassing because they’re not even Michigan’s biggest game of the year. They sometimes aren’t even second, as you can debate whether the Notre Dame versus Michigan rivalry is a bigger one too. 

Michigan State has had success on the field, and under current coach Mark Dantonio, they’ve been in the Top 5 in four different seasons. But seemingly no success will make Michigan State relevant unless something drastic changes. 

They can plant a flag at Notre Dame Stadium. They can fuel their hatred for Michigan. They can claim that Penn State hates them, or maybe, if they’re desperate, fall back on their ‘rivalry’ with Indiana. But come rivalry weekend, Michigan State will be in Maryland, or hosting Rutgers, or playing some other low-level Big 10 team, desperately searching for a team that will hate them back. 


This Day in March Madness History: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s first encounter

This Day in March Madness History

March 26, 1979
Michigan State vs. Indiana State

  • The Setup
    If someone had suggested this national championship match-up even two years prior, they would have been laughed at. Indiana State was hardly removed from their DII days, making their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1979. Meanwhile, Michigan State had only returned to relevance a year prior, when the Spartans made it to the Elite Eight. Before that run, Michigan State hadn’t made the tournament since 1959. However, in 1979, both teams were powerhouses, each led by a star that would become an NBA legend. Indiana State got a one-seed in the tournament, led by the exploits of Larry Bird, who averaged 28.6 points per game that season. Heading into the title game, the Sycamores had a 33-0 record, having survived consecutive two-point games to squeak into the final round.
    Meanwhile, Michigan State had been a little less dominant at 25-6, but they had their own stud at the helm in Magic Johnson, averaging 17.1 points per game. He actually was only second on the team in scoring to Greg Kelser. The Spartans had actually had it far easier than the Sycamores, not winning a single game by less than twelve points. That game was an upset of #1 Notre Dame, 80-68. In the Final Four, they faced a huge underdog in Penn, a nine-seed, and dismantled them by 34 points. 
  • How it went down
    Michigan State knew the game would come down to whether they could stop Larry Bird, especially in the paint. The Spartans flocked to Bird when he got the ball, and they crowded his passing lanes, limiting him to just 7 of 21 shooting, and only two assists. The Spartans went up 37-28 at the half. Johnson made one exceptional play late in the half, driving to the baseline, faking out Bird with a pump-fake pass, and laying the ball in for two points. The Sycamores had rallied several times throughout the year, and they had recent experience in close games, but they started off the second half slow. Michigan State rattled off seven straight points and led 44-28 just minutes into the second half.
    Out of all their comebacks, Bird’s squad had never trailed by more than eleven points, and the 16-point deficit proved too much a struggle to overcome. Michigan State continued to fluster the mid-major star with a spectacular zone defense that minimized his efficiency and playmaking ability. Bird scratched out 19 points, and Carl Nicks chipped away for 17, but that was as good as it got for Indiana State, which was doomed by poor free throw shooting. The Sycamores were 10-22 from the charity stripe, including 5-17 from players not named Larry Bird. Michigan State battled through their own foul trouble and avoided any ejections, closing out the Sycamores, 75-64. 
  • The Aftermath
    The season was done after that, but the future of these programs went in very different directions. Having won the title in just their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance, the Spartans eventually became a March regular, although it took a while. They missed the next five tournaments, and they struggled to establish a pedigree, but in 1995, Michigan State hired Tom Izzo as head coach. The Spartans won a title in 2000, and they’ve qualified for 23 straight NCAA Tournaments.
    Meanwhile, Indiana State has made just three tournament appearances since Larry Bird left the team, and they’ve won just one contest in that time. Ironically, the next tournament they qualified for, it was in 2000, when the Spartans won their next championship. They last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. 
  • NBA Notables (Teams they played 100+ games for)
    Michigan State – Magic Johnson (Lakers), Greg Kelser (SuperSonics), Jay Vincent (Mavericks)
    Indiana State – Larry Bird (Celtics), Carl Nicks (Jazz)

February 28-March 1: Nathaniel Lapoint’s Weekend Takeaways

The college basketball world continues to get crazier. A streaking Creighton team lost by 20 to one of the worst Power-6 teams in the country; Michigan State went into Maryland beat the Big 10 leaders, Baylor was stunned by TCU, and that was just a few of the headlines. I can’t unpack the whole weekend in a few bullet points, but here’s three of my takeaways. 

Duke needs to figure it out

  • After beating Notre Dame by 34, the Blue Devils were 22-3, and streaking fast, heading towards a possible #1 seed. Fast forward just over two weeks later, and Duke has lost three of four, all to unranked teams on the road. They lost by 22 to NC State, a bubble team at best, to Wake Forest, one of the worst teams in the ACC, and then to Virginia. The UVA loss on its own is not horrible, but Duke has now lost three straight road games, and in their two away games prior, they barely survived BC and UNC, another pair of basement dwellers. Championship teams can win away from home, and Duke is looking more and more incapable of that by the day. 

Dayton is ridiculously good

  • They had two early losses, and the Flyers flew under the radar due to the dominance of traditional mid-major powerhouse Gonzaga and the stunning success of San Diego State. But with both of those squads losing games recently, Dayton has flown into the mix for a #1 seed, and they are most certainly a team to watch as March Madness commences. They’ve won 18 straight and are passing every potential test with flying colors. As for the ‘championship teams win on the road’? Dayton is 8-0 in true road games, and their two losses are neutral court defeats by a combined 8 points to #1 Kansas and Colorado, who has been in and out of the Top 25 this season. Beyond that? Dayton has looked almost flawless; I wouldn’t want to be facing this squad in a couple of weeks. 

Michigan State is peaking at the right time

  • Michigan State has underwhelmed for much of the year, but with their most important basketball yet to be played, the Spartans seem to have found their form at the right time. Michigan State had lost four of five, punctuated by a February 15th loss at home to Maryland. Michigan State got some of their mojo back with a 21-point road win over a hapless Nebraska squad, and then they got a big home win over Luka Garza and the #18 Iowa Hawkeyes. Then came a road date with the Terrapins, just two weeks after their tough home loss, except this time, the Spartans picked up a victory by double-digits. The Spartans are getting lots of scoring outside of star guard Cassius Winston, and they are headed in the right direction with the tournament approaching.

Tuesday Top 25 Takeaways: SDSU struggling, Duke a pretender?

While college basketball usually has a lot of conference action on Wednesdays, Tuesday boasted a large slate of match-ups involving ranked teams, highlighted by a Top-25 showdown between #18 Iowa and #24 Michigan State, and Wake Forest’s shocking upset of #7 Duke. With that being said, each of our podcast personalities came up with a takeaway or two from Tuesday’s packed schedule.

Andrew Degeorge

  • Tom Izzo needs to calm down

An emotional coach on the sideline can generate a lot of opinions, but Tom Izzo’s frustration with the referees on Tuesday seemed more reflective of his frustration with the under-performing Spartans. Michigan State pulled out a win on Tuesday, but hovering at the edge of the Top 25 is pretty disappointing, and Izzo may be boiling over. Michigan State’s season isn’t dead yet though, so Izzo needs to calm down a little bit as the Spartans head for the postsesaon.

  • Xavier Tillman figures out how to slow down Luka Garza

Izzo called Tillman one of the best defenders in the country after this game, and the praise was justified. Playing a red-hot Luka Garza, Tillman matched up against the Iowa star and made him earn every point. After Garza dominated other Michigan State defenders in the first half for twelve points, Tillman took over in the second half. Although the Hawkeyes’ stud notched eight more points, he missed seven second half shots, shooting just 38% for the whole game. Tillman also notched a couple of huge blocks to help the Spartans grab a much-needed victory.

Nathaniel Lapoint’s Takeaway

  • Duke is really overrated

Duke had been looking really good, but then they lost by 22 points to NC State. However, the road loss to a desperate bubble team could be excused, and Duke looked to bounce back with a dominant victory over Virginia Tech. Then came last night. The Blue Devils were up nine with under 90 seconds remaining but allowed one of the worst teams in the ACC – Wake Forest – to come back, tie the game, and then win in double overtime. Duke gave up 113 points in the loss, an embarrassing total considering Wake Forest’s feeble performance this season. With two straight ugly losses to unranked teams, it may be time to start questioning how legitimate this Duke team is.

Cal Christoforo’s Takeaway

  • SDSU needs to wakeup

It’s really hard to finish a season undefeated. So while SDSU’s loss to UNLV was a tough blow to their hopes for a #1 seed, it’s at least understandable. Everyone has an off night. But then the Aztecs came out on Tuesday, presumably fired up to play after a loss, and laid a first-half egg. They trailed a mid-tier Colorado State team at halftime on their home court, and needed a comeback to secure a 6-point victory by the end. San Diego State seems to have gotten a little bit too comfortable, and they need to wake up. There will be better teams than UNLV and Colorado State in March.