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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rexrode on the Rivalry

From Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING - The day before a game with Michigan, Tom Izzo is like
Santa Claus, passing out shiny sound bites to all the good little girls and boys with cameras and digital voice recorders.

Some of Monday's favorites included:

• "Do I respect John Beilein? Tremendously. Do I respect Michigan? Tremendously. Do I like them? Not one bit."

• "I don't like anything about Michigan and they don't like anything about us. That's just the way it is. And that's the way it should be."

• "Last year, I'm not sure some of the guys that we asked to exit give a damn about (the rivalry) at all. And some guys, it means more to than others. I will guarantee you that it was personal to Bo Schembechler. I will guarantee you it was personal to George Perles. And that's what it's supposed to be."

But this may have been the most interesting thing Izzo had to say, even if it wasn't the most televised: "There haven't been many people in any sport that have gone through what I've gone through, in that situation many years ago. And that will live with me until they bury me. And I want it to."

Clearly, Izzo is ready for tonight's game between the No. 9 Spartans (15-3 overall, 4-1 Big Ten) and the No. 20 Wolverines (14-4, 4-2) at the newly renamed Crisler Center. MSU, swept by U-M last season for the first time since 1997, is being challenged by its rival like it never was from 1998 to 2010, when Izzo ripped off 18 wins in 21 meetings.

This is just the seventh time in the history of the series that both teams are nationally ranked, and both have legitimate positions in the Big Ten race. It's a big game.
Defining pursuit

But it always seems to come back to the early 1990s for Izzo. The recruitment of Chris Webber has served to motivate him, fiercely - to prevail in this rivalry and in his career in general.

Izzo was Jud Heathcote's top assistant at MSU then. He had worked for several years to build a relationship with Webber, a future NBA No. 1 pick from Detroit Country Day.

Webber called MSU his leader for months. But he ended up committing to Michigan coach Steve Fisher along with the rest of the 1991 recruiting class dubbed the "Fab Five."

Izzo believed cheating was involved. That belief ultimately was justified when it was revealed that U-M booster Ed Martin had given $616,000 to Webber and three others who subsequently played for the Wolverines.

The irony is that the scandal ended up burying U-M's program just as Izzo and the Spartans were taking off in the late 1990s. Still, the loss of Webber and that stretch of the rivalry usually gets some kind of Izzo mention when the U-M game comes around.

While recruiting Webber, Izzo became friends with Duke assistant coach Tommy Amaker. Both were battling U-M for Webber's services.

When Amaker coached Michigan from 2001 to 2007, the MSU-Michigan rivalry was almost cordial.

"It was friendlier for a couple years," Izzo said, "because him and I went through a real interesting thing together as assistants, that I won't get into."

Not much, anyway.
Heating up again

When Beilein replaced Amaker in 2007, Izzo invited him to East Lansing to tour MSU's facilities. They've had a respectful approach to each other, but things heated up between these programs last season.

U-M turned around its season with a 61-57 win at MSU on Jan. 27, breaking an 11-game, 14-year losing streak at Breslin. The Wolverines were 11-9 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten at the time but went on to an NCAA bid, win over Tennessee and near upset of Duke.

MSU was in shambles. Izzo had dismissed guard Korie Lucious two days earlier for repeated accountability issues and the Spartans had to battle back from that point to get their own NCAA bid.

On Monday, Michigan players expressed their own reasons for motivation, based on reaction to the breakthrough win at Breslin.

"Everybody's saying it was a fluke last year, that they had emotional problems," U-M sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. told the Detroit Free Press. "Everybody out there (is saying it). Just hearing it, we really take that to heart."

Of course, U-M won the rematch at Crisler as well. U-M guard Darius Morris scored late and got into some words with MSU's Kalin Lucas. Lucas threw the ball in Morris' direction and the players had to be separated.

"I'm not for that, so I'll straighten that out," Izzo said at the time of Lucas throwing the ball. "But at the same time, going for a layup with three seconds left, (Morris) talked a lot of stuff all game including at our place. Maybe he deserved it."

Then Izzo pounded the podium in the interview room as he said: "So let's get this rivalry REALLY going."

Morris and Lucas are gone. But the intensity doesn't figure to wane much tonight.

It's part of Izzo's personality. The same can be said for his senior leader, Draymond Green, who took the two losses to the Wolverines harder than anyone in the MSU locker room.

"I don't want to lose to Michigan," Green said. "Never want to lose to Michigan. And when I leave here, never want to see Michigan State lose to Michigan. So it's not gonna change in the rest of my life, and this year is where it starts."

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