Column: MSU, U-M both capable of making run to Final 4

Unfortunately, I don't have ESPN's research team living in my basement, so I'm unable to confirm the last time Michigan State and Michigan were perched 1-2 in the men's basketball standings this late in the season in the Big Ten Conference, much like they currently stand.
Nate Thompson
Feb 20, 2012

My highly scientific guess would be “a really long time, man.”

The Spartans have lived up to their end of the bargin, winning the Big Ten title six times during head coach Tom Izzo’s 17-year tenure and are in strong position to make it No. 7 in a couple weeks.

It’s obviously new territory for U-M, which, after Saturday’s electric atmosphere and huge, five-point win at the Crisler Center against No. 6-ranked Ohio State, is starting to get some bandwagon fans back in their renovated seats. Those are the fans that jumped ship at the end of the disastrous Brian Ellerbe coaching era and remained away while Tommy Amaker barely kept his head above water.

But a coach from West Virginia — no, not the one you’re thinking of — has done nothing short of a remarkable job of putting the Wolverines back in contention.

John Beilein’s team may rank next-to-last in the Big Ten in rebounding this season, but if Saturday night proved anything, it doesn’t always matter. U-M played its most physical game of the season against the Buckeyes, and when the Wolverines’ shooters are on, giving freshman phenom point guard Trey Burke the room he needs to create, they’re nearly impossible to defend.

With four games left in conference for both the Spartans and Wolverines, I’m secretly hoping that they end up tied. That would create always-entertaining bickering between both fan bases on who deserves the title more, and it could mean double the ensuing drama if they meet again in the Big Ten Tournament.

Regardless of how it plays out, both MSU and U-M have shown me enough this season to believe a crazy scenario could very well happen: Both could be making reservations to the Final Four in New Orleans.

I don’t need ESPN’s stat geeks to figure out when the last time that has happened, because it never has.

Certainly, a lot depends on matchups and seedings, but think of the euphoria it would create if the Great Lakes State was represented twice in the Big Easy.

I think every single in-state sports columnists’ head would explode.

It’s possible for the Spartans because they defend like the Tom Izzo squads of old, which is getting on opponents like they stole their lunch money.

MSU’s perimeter defense was incredibly impressive against U-M at the Breslin Center two weeks ago, routinely forcing Burke and the other U-M guards to try to create well beyond the 3-point line deep into the shot clock.

Sunday was more of the same after the Spartans held host Purdue to 22 percent shooting in the second half, which lifted MSU into first place alone in the Big Ten.

The way it’s going, MSU could have a shooting performance that could raise questions on whether they were blindfolded or not (hello, Illinois game), and their physical defense could still almost help them win.  

That’s a winning formula in the Big Dance, where one cold shooting night often means the end of the road.

The Spartans are elite, however, when they’re defending, and guard Keith Appling is breaking ankles, Brandon Wood is hitting perimeter shots, and Draymond Green is being, well, Draymond Green. When all their parts are working, they’re a deserving No. 1 seed.

It’s a lot different with Michigan. With an offense so predicated by the outside shot, the Wolverines have less room for error if their shots aren’t falling.

But when U-M has balanced, high-percentage scoring and some unsung heroes step up (such as center Jordan Morgan on Saturday), the Wolverines can hang with — and beat — anybody. If anything, Beilein gives them more than a fighting chance because he’s such a tremendous in-game technician and many teams aren’t comfortable dealing with U-M’s 1-3-1 zone.

Again, a U-M Final Four berth depends a lot on matchups. But if we’ve learned anything from watching the Tournament the last few years, if teams catch fire at the right time — step forward VCU — anything can happen.

Here’s hoping that ‘anything’ this year has a strong Spartans and Wolverines flavor.

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