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The Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry deserves the Big Ten's attention

John U. Bacon

College basketball is so corrupt, the FBI itself felt it had to investigate it, busting a bunch of coaches this past fall. But that’s not the case here in Michigan, where two of the sport’s greatest leaders happen to work. It’s also home to one of the game’s most underrated rivalries.

Entering Saturday’s game between Michigan and Michigan State, the Spartans had just snapped their 14-game winning streak -- and lost their number-one ranking with it -- by losing to Ohio State. But they were still ranked fourth, with the best three forwards Tom Izzo has ever had in his 23 years coaching Michigan State, and that’s saying a lot.

Michigan approached the game from the opposite direction. The Wolverines hadn’t been ranked all season, and had just lost to fifth-ranked Purdue by a point. They played well enough to win, but didn’t seem to know how to handle themselves during crunch time. Nationwide, few were paying any attention to them, and they were eager to change that.

Both teams were playing for a Big Ten title, national respect, and a good spot in the NCAA tournament – pretty high stakes for early January.

The game was better than advertised, a great bout with both teams swinging away, landing punch after punch. The game featured 11 ties, and 13 lead changes. No one was asking for a refund. But when the game whittled down to the final minutes, when the Spartans were expected to show the Wolverines what a top ten team looks like, a funny thing happened: the underdogs played with poise, and the favorites lost it.

The Wolverines won by ten, and celebrated accordingly. Michigan’s big man, 6-11 Moe Wagner, fresh from Germany, showed off his mastery of America trash talk. When a reporter asked Izzo about Wagner’s antics, he said, "He earned it. He talked it, he walked it.”

And that’s why I love this rivalry.

Both teams are coached by grown men, not overgrown adolescents, who know right from wrong. They graduate almost all their players, and have never committed any violations in a sport infested with rampant cheating.

This summer CBS asked more than 100 college coaches who was the nation’s cleanest coach. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo finished a very impressive sixth, while Michigan’s John Beilein finished first. Which is why I believe this is one of the greatest rivalries in college basketball – and why it’s never been better.

I’ll say it now: when you take everything into account, Tom Izzo is the best coach in Michigan State history, and John Beilein is the best coach in Michigan history. The state of Michigan has never had it better, on and off the court.

If my son plays basketball, I’d be thrilled to see him play for either coach. Of course, they wouldn’t, since Teddy’s dad stands five-foot-eight and his mom five-foot-five, and neither one of us can jump – or play basketball.

We should savor this golden era – which is why it’s completely mystifying the Big Ten scheduled only one game between them this season.

Great players making great plays led by great coaches in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries. Yeah, who would want to see more of that?!? Can you imagine the Atlantic Coast Conference throttling down the Duke-North Carolina rivalry to only one game a year? You would’ve heard about it.

Here’s hoping the Big Ten gets it right next year, and all the years thereafter, and schedules two Michigan-Michigan State games every year, before these two legends leave the stage.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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