CHICAGO — Charles Matthews, the old veteran, sat at his locker inside the United Center on Saturday evening doing his best to keep everything in perspective.
Moments after his team thrashed Minnesota, 76-49, in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, notching Michigan basketball its record 10th straight conference tourney victory, Matthews and his teammates were bombarded with questions about what it means to get one more shot at Michigan State.
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Matthews has been around the block a time or two.
“We’re playing in a championship game for this tournament, trying to get this win,” Matthews said. “It’s a rival of ours, but I think all games are big (at this point).”
A few feet to Matthews’ left sat Ignas Brazdeikis. The Big Ten freshman of the year, the team’s leading scorer and the guy who is least afraid to wear all his emotions on his sleeve.
He woke up Saturday looking at the possibility of beating Minnesota and getting Wisconsin in Sunday’s final instead.
He wanted no part of that.
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“I’d rather play (Michigan State) than anyone in the country,” he said straight-faced. “Losing twice to them this year hurt. In-state rivals. The way we lost last game, seeing how happy they were.
“I feel like we’re all hungry for this one.”
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On Sunday in Chicago, it’ll be U-M vs. MSU, Part III. A fitting end to the final conference event of the season, as the Spartans and Wolverines were — with no disrespect to Purdue — the best two clubs in this league from start to finish.
MSU will enter the game knowing it already has a banner and two victories over its rival, including one of the Wolverines’ home floor. U-M will walk into the United Center with, possibly, one last shot at redemption against its rival, even if it’s on a neutral floor.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has remarked plenty over the years about the fact he’s never been very fond of this tournament. John Beilein, especially now after winning back-to-back crowns, is the opposite.
Michigan wants to make history Sunday, becoming the first team in league history to ever win this tournament three straight years. U-M wants to get one back against MSU.
And most important, Michigan wants to continue firing on all cylinders at the right time.
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“(This tournament) prepares us well, it’s an opportunity to play against great teams and it has us excited,” said junior point guard Zavier Simpson, who dropped in 15 points and nine assists against Minnesota on Saturday. “(Michigan State) has a great team. They beat us twice. You have to be a great team to beat a team twice. Great team. Credit to them and their coaching staff.
“Tomorrow, we’re playing for a championship.”
Michigan’s last two days at the Big Ten tournament have featured a team that appears to be refreshed. The Wolverines fought hard down the stretch with eyes on a regular-season title and, at times, appeared to far too clogged up as a result. Matthews got hurt, the offense couldn’t solve MSU and the Wolverines had no answer for Cassius Winston.
The way the Wolverines see it: They dropped two games to one of the best teams in America, one that happens to be their biggest rival. When the final game ended, U-M went home and gathered itself. It loosened up. And while the last two days have featured battles against two middling Big Ten clubs, the Wolverines have been completely on point at both ends of the floor.
Just like Friday, Michigan shot the ball well from deep, kept the offense moving, ran the floor whenever possible and played its customary tough defense at the other end. Minnesota never stood a chance. The Wolverines hit 10 3-pointers, shot better than 50 percent from the floor and averaged nearly 1.3 points per possession. They did whatever they wanted while pushing Minnesota, a team who had been playing well, into a box for a full 40 minutes.
U-M came to Chicago to get itself right, first and foremost.
But it also came to Chicago looking for one more shot against its biggest foe.
“This is great. We have to embrace it. Michigan State’s not going away as being a force in the Big Ten. Michigan’s not going away as being a force in the Big Ten,” Beilein said. “As a result, you have two great programs. As I’ve said before, in the Big Ten in a city like Chicago where we have two great alumni bases with teams who have been to Final Fours — it’s a great venue right now with really storied programs going at it.
“When we came to Michigan, that wasn’t (necessarily case). To be there now, it feels really good.”
For U-M, solving Michigan State comes down to two people: Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.
Asked Saturday what the top concern generally is when his team is faced with the task of defending Winston, Michigan chief defensive assistant Luke Yaklich kept it simple.
“When he’s in a uniform,” he smiled.
Tillman, meanwhile, not only helped spark Michigan State’s late-season offensive flow, but he was a one-man wrecking crew against every ball screen Michigan threw at the Spartans earlier this season. Especially in the last meeting. U-M has to find a way to slow down the Big Ten’s best offensive player and, at the same time, it has to find a way to get clean looks against one of the most versatile — and emerging — defensive big men in the league.
Figure those things out and leave here with a trophy. If history repeats itself there in any way, U-M will carry and 0-3 record against MSU this season.
A loss would be more of the same. A win would give Michigan some revenge, a championship and, most important, the feeling of going into March’s biggest event playing its best basketball of the season.
What more could you want?
“It’s perfect,” Brazdeikis said. “Doesn’t get bigger than this. This is it right here.”
Contact Nick Baumgardner at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.
Published 7:57 PM EDT Mar 16, 2019