Cole: Green or Blue, Let’s Appreciate the Greatness of UM and MSU

Michigan and Michigan State square off in a massive rivalry game Sunday. The game has important implications on the Big Ten race, NCAA tournament seeding, and of course, rivalry bragging rights.

I’ve long been a proponent of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry as one of the nation’s best. While Duke and North Carolina always get the most attention nationwide–deservedly so–the Great Lakes State’s biggest college rivalry is generally slept on by most outside the Big Ten.

It’s nasty. It’s bloody. It’s filled with hate. It separates families. It makes for hostile work environments. Many across the state Monday will either be really high or really low. That after the trash talk has gone on all season, awaiting the two matchups in each team’s final four games of the regular season. See, even the Big Ten knows this rivalry is such a big deal. The conference left fans hanging for three and a half months just to see one of their games!

But all the trash talk and emotion that goes into each of these games takes away from the history we’re seeing with both programs.

Can’t we just put the hate aside and appreciate the simultaneous greatness of both Tom Izzo and John Beilein’s programs?

This is just the third time in the rivalry’s history that Michigan and Michigan State face off as Top 10 teams. The other two matchups? They both happened in 2013, when each team won their home game.

That goes to show how unprecedented the two programs’ combined success is at the same time. Before John Beilein got to Michigan in 2007, Izzo’s Spartans smacked the Wolverines around for the better part of a decade. Before Izzo began his tenure as MSU head coach, the Wolverines owned the advantage. It wasn’t until this decade that both the Spartans and Wolverines were so evenly-matched and prominent on a national stage.

Off the court, the rivalry is heated on the recruiting trail. This year’s freshman class for both teams features five players each; six of those players came from the state of Michigan. Each of those were heavily recruited by both coaches for years. Izzo got four to wear Spartan green, while Beilein snagged two. Michigan’s class even includes a forward right from Michigan State’s backyard: East Lansing’s Brandon Johns. Both coaches take their rivalry into recruiting.

Both programs also churn out eventual pros year after year. Plenty of NBA talent hails from this decade in the rivalry. Draymond Green, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson were all players in the Spartans’ recent years that have made their names known professionally. Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III and Moe Wagner all had major moments in the rivalry this decade and now collect an NBA paycheck.

They both have a coach that embodies their respective programs. Tom Izzo built MSU into a national power, and his hunger for a second national title has kept MSU relevant on a national scale for two decades. John Beilein resurrected a once-proud Michigan program and is the basketball mastermind the program needed to compete with Izzo. Now, they’ve brought the two programs to a level playing field

This year? Both teams–and programs–are rolling. Michigan tipped off the season with 17 straight wins, ascending all the way to No. 2. MSU has hovered between No. 6 and No. 11 all year. They each have signature wins–although no win can surpass the meaning of a win over their chief rival.

They could be on pace for something also unprecedented in the rivalry; both teams have never been a No. 2 seed or higher in the NCAA tournament in the same year. Both teams are projected right around that at this point. That goes to show how both Michigan and Michigan State have propelled the rivalry onto a national stage like never before.

And as much as fans may hate it, these are two very similar teams. They’re each a mix of experienced talents and young faces. They each won a Big Ten title last year: MSU in the regular season, UM in the conference tournament. They each play stout defense and have a knack for running their respective offenses efficiently. They’re each nearly unbeatable on their home floors: MSU has one home loss, Michigan none.

Maybe most importantly, they’re tied for the Big Ten lead. These two games will have a big say in who wins the conference. Rarely do these two programs carry the Big Ten banner, but this year, they do. And they’re here to stay, too.

So while the hate may consume you for two hours starting at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, take a step back. Appreciate the rivals’ greatness. Respect the elite level each is playing at. Notice the team’s similarities. Understand that it’s not always like this.

In fact, it’s never really been like this at all.