Hated rivals Michigan and Michigan State keep possible title showdown alive

NEW YORK – There may not be anyone in the state of Michigan who loves the state of Michigan, from its beauty to its blemishes, more than Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Well, except for Ann Arbor.

You spend your professional life building up the Spartan program (he arrived in East Lansing as an assistant in 1983 and became the head coach in 1995) and you find a healthy hatred, or at least wariness of your bitter in-state rival that you fought for victories, recruits, fans and media attention. It took years and years of repeated Final Four trips before Izzo, 59, ever felt MSU was really on equal footing. And the motivation to maintain that drives him daily.

Old feelings die hard, no one is saying otherwise.

Yet as he walked a back hall of Madison Square Garden here, just after midnight Friday, just after his Spartans outlasted Virginia, 61-59, in a rock fight disguised as a Sweet 16 game, Izzo looked beyond his own emotions and down the line of this tournament.

Just hours earlier Michigan knocked off Tennessee, 73-71, to advance to the Elite Eight itself. On Sunday, back to back, both of the state's Big Ten entrants will play for a spot in the Final Four: MSU vs. UConn at 2:20 p.m. ET, Michigan vs. Kentucky at 5:05 p.m. ET.

It'll be one of the most anticipated days for sports, and certainly college basketball, the state has ever seen. And there's more. Three victories each into this tournament, there is even still a chance for the ultimate, a matchup a week from Monday for the national title.

"That'd be fun," Izzo said.

Fun? Sure, and good for cardiac surgeons.

"Somebody asked me about that," Izzo continued, "and I said, 'that'd be great.' And they said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yeah, only because it means we're there.' I don't care about the other part of it as long as we're there. We have a lot of work to do to get there."

Sure, Izzo would play anyone for the national title but there is some deep-seated state pride there that lets him at least acknowledge, if not appreciate, the idea that the two best teams in the country – or at least two of the final eight – are right in his home state he loves so much.

And, truth be told, he likes beating Michigan more than he does beating anyone else. Earlier this month, the Spartans avenged two regular-season losses by prevailing in the Big Ten title game. So why not play for everything?

Plus, these aren't just rivals. They are rivals who have both proven they can compete at the most elite level.

[Photos: Top Sweet 16 action from Michigan State vs. Virginia]

Both Michigan (1989) and Michigan State (1979, 2000) have captured national championships in the past – one of just eight states to have multiple schools win the NCAA tournament. Yet throughout their various runs of success, it's often been one team on the rise while the other falters.

Izzo's program has been a rock for a decade and a half now. Early on much of that was at the expense of Michigan, which fell apart due to NCAA sanctions in the late 1990s. The Wolverines, however, have finally regained their footing under John Beilein, who took his team to the NCAA title game last season.

The University of Michigan is back, but by now, Izzo's program doesn't crack because someone else is winning some games.

So both are up. Both are excellent. Both are here to stay.

Maybe this is inevitable, the way these wild Kentucky-Louisville NCAA games have been of late, the way everyone always assumed Duke-North Carolina would happen one day in the tourney.

For years Izzo wistfully talked about what it would be like if his state could create a Tobacco Road kind of thing or a Kentucky kind of thing.

Michigan firing on all cylinders might make his job tougher on the recruiting trail, but he's too old to shy away from challenges. Besides, there's enough in-state talent, he always said, and plenty more over in Ohio and Indiana and Chicago for sustained success of multiple programs.

"I'm happy for them," Izzo said of Michigan. "I don't have any problem. I really don't. I think it's great for our state, really great for our state, to be honest with you. [Tobacco Road], that is what you want, that kind of thing.

"I think it makes both teams better. It makes us better. I think it really does."

Of the eight states with multiple champions, only North Carolina (UNC, Duke and N.C. State have all been champions) and Kentucky (UK and Louisville) can compare to the potential of Michigan, where year-in, year-out success is possible between teams that are true rivals and play each other every year.

Sure, two teams from the State of New York, for instance, have won the NCAA tournament, but there isn't a lot of trash talk these days between City College of New York (1950 champion) and Syracuse (2003).

Creating a modern college hoops hotbed in Michigan is its own unique challenge. Kentucky has just three million people and no pro teams. The college game is the focus. North Carolina has grown significantly of late in population and added three professional franchises, but when Tobacco Road took root, it too was small and rural. NCAA basketball was about all there was. And neither state has much tradition in college football.

Izzo understands that there would be something magically cool about getting a big, populous state (10 million), with a slew of pro sports teams and iconic college football programs, totally engrossed in college hoops in this day and age.

Yet here it is, maybe in a big, big way.

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The animosity between the two fans bases is perhaps nastier than ever, if only because of the rise of Michigan State football, which has won five of six from the Wolverines and are the reigning Rose Bowl champions. Now everything seem bigger. Everything seems even. Everything is a challenge. There are no little brothers anymore. And the Internet, of course, makes everything louder.

Yet for all the fan venom, Izzo has a great deal of respect for Beilein, and vice versa. That certainly wasn't always the case between the schools' respective coaching staffs through the decades.

"There are no evil people in this business," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis noted.

Plenty of fans see it otherwise. They can invent evil. And both teams reaching a title game showdown for history might leave the entire state as an overwrought mess.

"It would be intense," Hollis said. "It would be the ultimate."

Izzo just shrugged. Bring it on. He just wants to beat UConn on Sunday he kept saying. That's pretty much all he's thinking about. This tournament is so tough that looking past tomorrow seems impossible sometimes. Izzo has reached six Final Fours following this tunnel vision strategy.

If he can get past the Huskies, though, then hey, let Michigan come to Arlington, Texas too, bring on the shared spotlight, bring on the possibility of Spartans-Wolverines for the whole damn thing.

Why not?

"Fun," he called it.

He's always believed in the state of Michigan, after all. But Michigan State, of course, most of all.