EAST LANSING - During a season in which the University of Michigan's basketball team was supposedly returning to national prominence, the Wolverines failed miserably and returned to earth, miles behind in-state nemesis Michigan State on the scoreboard Tuesday night, falling two games behind first-place MSU in the Big Ten standings, and soon to fall behind the Spartans in the meaningless national polls.
Gary Harris scored 17 points and Derrick Nix had 14 to help No. 8 Michigan State rout No. 4 Michigan 75-52 on Tuesday night, the rivalry's first matchup of top 10 teams.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo downplayed his team's dominance, stating that this game marked the best his team has played in three years. Meanwhile, he said Michigan is much better than they looked on this night.
"That's the best game we've played," Izzo said. "And I'll bet they played one of their worst games - so keep it in perspective.
"We did play great defense. We did everything we had to do. We got it inside - and we said we were going to do that. We were able to get the run game going."
One would hope so. The No. 4-ranked Wolverines had no Plan B on offense beyond the basic ball-screen play, which MSU defused throughout the game, with MSU guard Keith Appling going over ball screens and discouraging pull-up jumpers from deep by Trey Burke while Appling's big-man teammates moved laterally to keep Burke from turning the corner and penetrating. Burke scored an efficient 18 points but had room to attempt only 11 field goals.
Ball screen defense was the backbone of MSU's dominating performance, while Michigan State surprisingly dominated the glass to the tune of 40-28.
The Spartans (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) broke a first-place tie in the conference with No. 1 Indiana, which plays at Michigan State next Tuesday.
The Wolverines (21-4, 8-4) have lost three of four, but the closely contested setbacks on the road against the Hoosiers and Wisconsin were nothing like the latest when they were held to a season-low point total.
Michigan State didn't trail once, led by as many as 16 points in the first half and enjoyed 30-point leads in the second half. The game was so lopsided that both coaches filled the court with reserves during the final minutes.
"It was an embarrassing loss," Burke said.
Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. was held scoreless until making a layup early in the second half and didn't score again. He was 1 of 11 from the field and scored a season-low two points, with Dawson serving as the primary defender on him.
Glen Robinson III was 1 of 4 and scored two points to match his season low - with MSU's Adreian Payne shutting him down with a height advantage and enough quickness to keep the normally sleek-scoring Robinson in check. Robinson only tried to drive on Payne once, and then seemed to give up on it for the rest of the night.
''We couldn't get anywhere we wanted to and when we had open looks, we didn't hit anything,'' Beilein said. ''Somehow, we did not play with poise that we need to have to make shots.''
MSU went down low to Derrick Nix throughout the first half and ran the offense through him. He was a force in the early going as Michigan tried to cover him one-on-one rather than double-teaming him. That turned out to be a mistake.
The Wolverines, who pride themselves on taking care of the basketball, had a season-high 16 turnovers and didn't have much success getting the ball away from the Spartans.
For a third straight game, MSU committed fewer than 10 turnovers, with just 8. Good ball care, combined with good field goal shooting from MSU (48 percent) and 14 offensive rebounds combined to ground Michigan's lethal transition game.
Harris scored from the outside, making five 3-pointers, and Nix had his way on the inside as part of a balanced offense.
"Nix is developing into a great post player and the four guys around him are as high-level as anyone in the country," said Michigan coach John Beilein.
Appling had 11 points and Branden Dawson scored 10 before leaving the court late in the game because Michigan's Mitch McGarry hit him in the face inadvertently with his right arm. Izzo said after the game that Dawson took the blow to the lip and nose, but did not seem to show concussion symptoms.
"Gary Harris is a special kid and so is Appling," Izzo said. "There area lot of good guard tandems in the country but my two don't have to take a back seat to many."
Michigan State has won two straight in the series after losing three in a row following a run of dominance for the Spartans.
"That was the worst we've played in a long, long time and credit Michigan State for that," Beilein said.
Freshman wing guard Denzel Valentine was excellent off the bench. He had seven points, nine rebounds and four assists, and played the most aware, energetic defense of his young college career. Valentine is averaging 7.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in his last four games.
The previously-hot Hardaway was held to 1-of-11 shooting from the field.
''They bullied us - point blank,'' Hardaway said. ''I've got nothing else to say.''
The highly anticipated game drew Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio, who mingled with Michigan football coach Brady Hoke, as they stood near ex-Wolverines football coach Lloyd Carr.
Breslin Center's throng of "white out" fans pumped MSU's home arena to a level of loudness rarely equaled. MSU fans were fired up before the game even started and they stayed enthusiastic, standing for much of the game, because the home team gave them plenty of reasons to cheer from start to finish. The Izzone student section changed "Fat Tuesday" at Hoke.
In the first matchup of 20-win teams in Division I basketball this season, Michigan State showed it might not be a rebuilding this season.
Michigan State has won 20 of the last 26 games against michigan and 13 of the last 14 at the Breslin Center.
''The crowd was just awesome,'' Izzo said. ''It kind of reminded me of back in the day.''
In the first matchup of 20-win teams in Division I basketball this season, Michigan State showed it might be building for another run at conference title contention. Final Four talk is sure to follow from the national pundits.
"We beat Michigan and now we have a target on our back," Payne said. "That should make us play even harder."
''I'm not sure we're as good as we played, but I'll take it,'' Izzo said. ''It was a big win for Michigan State.''
Post-game opening statement: "First of all I'm very proud of my team and my staff. We did an excellent job of preparing for the different things we wanted to do. Keep it in perspective that we probably played our best game in three years and they probably played one of their worst. They missed shots and things just didn't fall for them.
"Starting the game out we wanted to go inside and we did a good job of that. They started doubling so we adjusted and did a good job with that. When they didn't double we dribbled in and were able to kick it across the court.
"We did a good job with the zone.
"The job that Gary Harris and Keith Appling did on two of the best guards in the country was incredible. (Trey) Burke still had some incredible stats but I thought we did a great job with those two.
"Our whole premise was to try and keep it out of the paint and Derrick Nix did a great job on those ball screens.
"The stats that matter most to me are turnovers. They had 16 and we had eight which is very unlike them.
"Out-rebounding them by 11 was a big stat and we shot pretty well from the three.
"I said before the game if we can keep them to six, seven or eight threes and not 11, 12 or 13 we have a chance.
"It was like a perfect storm. We played about as well as we can play and they did not play as well. They are a much better team and I'm not sure we are as good as we played but I'll take it."
On the play of MSU's freshmen:
"We have three pretty good freshmen. I was pleased with (Denzel) Valentine. He does enough to make me feel good and does enough to make me not feel as good. He bounced back after getting picked off in the first time and made some big plays. His defense is much better than it's been and we got a lot out of him.
"We got a lot out of (Matt) Costello. He stepped up and did a great job on the ball screens."
On setting the defensive tone early and the play of Gary Harris:
"Branden Dawson was the guy we played on (Tim) Hardaway a lot, and we felt like Gary (Harris) had a better understanding of helping. Dawson has done a good job defensively against teams like Ohio State and Purdue and he bounced back to play his best defensive game.
"Harris learned what the rivalry was about, he spent everything he had. (Keith) Appling asked to come out a few times which you like to hear believe it or not because you know they are spending it.
"You ask for 40 minutes of relentless work and we got every minute out of them."
On the crowd:
"The crowd was just awesome. I sent them an e-mail to make sure they cheer more for us. I'm sure they booed some but they did a great job for us. The whole place, the older people, the younger people were great. It kind of reminded me of back in the day. Maybe this is what we need. We need our crowd to be back and our team to understand how hard we have to play. It was a big step for us. But don't think that's the real Michigan team because it's not."
On coming through in big game situations:
"I think Appling is starting to be a better and better leader. The focus of Nix at the shoot around today was phenomenal. I have to make them understand that's the way it's got to be. Our young guys are getting better, and Dawson is getting better. I think this team can be good because we have an inside and an outside. We have another shooter when we get Travis Trice back."
"Michigan State, as you saw today, really has an excellent team. I've believed that all year long. They really played like that today. That was the worst we played in a long, long time and credit Michigan State for that. The experience in their post play was big. They really took care of the ball and offensive rebounds were extremely well. There were so many things we played poorly in, it's hard to put my finger on it. But Michigan State was excellent today."
On Michigan's offensive of play and Michigan State's defensive play:
"They were very good; we couldn't get anywhere where we wanted to get to. When we did have open looks, we didn't make them. I said that before the game that we had to do that. We play in front of a sell-out every night, for the whole year virtually. Somehow we did not play with poise offensively that we needed to have to be able make shots when you're open and make some guarded shots as well."
On Michigan State's play:
"They have tremendous talent, I mean tremendous talent. Derrick Nix has developed into really a tremendous post player. The other four guys they put around him are as high level as there are in the country.
"They're good. They have a great plan, they play very well together, and they played with great purpose today. They are playing freshmen like we are, probably not as many of them. The two, (Denzel) Valentine and (Gary) Harris were terrific today. We have to learn a lot from this game."
On the play of Tim Hardaway Jr.:
"He has been playing as good as any guard in the country, he had a bad night. He really had a bad night. You can credit the Michigan State defense. Tim Hardaway has been as good as any player in the country really, him and Trey Burke. That back court is terrific. Tim had a bad night and Tim Hardaway will bounce back like he always has."
On not being able to respond:
"We had one of the best defensive rebounding percentages in the Big Ten, but it wasn't even close tonight. One of the things we emphasized was we had to seek contact on every shot and there was no contact. They got the best of us in that area, obviously that's a huge area that we need to work on. It's a physical game and you have to embrace it. We did not and they did. They just got away from us. There wasn't any turning back after they made that spurt in the second half."
What to take from the game:
"We are going to practice tomorrow; Thursday is going to be our day off. I'm not going to say we weren't ready to play; we were pretty pumped up in the locker room. You are going to have days like this and you are going to learn that in every game you have to execute every time, you just have to do. Today the block out was huge.
"Paying attention in huddles, I thought our guys were distracted coming out of the huddle a couple of times. Just things that they have to learn to understand because they can snowball so quickly on you. We didn't deserve to win that game, and maybe we got exactly what we deserved. Maybe it's medicine for the future."