Both Michigan State and Michigan badly needed a win Thursday night at the Breslin Center.
The Spartans had lost their last two games, and squeaked by with wins in the two games prior to that. But really, they've struggled in Big Ten play since winning their conference opener over Minnesota. And it had already been a tough week for Tom Izzo's squad, with Korie Lucious being dismissed from the team for the rest of the season.
But the Wolverines had gone into the tank since Big Ten play began. Since an impressive win over Penn State, Michigan had lost six straight games. (Although two of those losses were to two of the best teams in the country, in Kansas and Ohio State.) And perhaps you've heard that it had been 1,181 days since the Wolverines beat the Spartans in either basketball or football.
Michigan State's home court hardly seemed like the ideal setting to break a six-game losing streak. Michigan hadn't won in East Lansing since 1997. For the Spartans, their hated in-state rival seemed like just the right opponent to step on and get back into the Big Ten race.
But maybe Michigan felt just a little more urgency to get a win. Almost from the beginning of Thursday's game, the Wolverines looked like the more determined team. Some desperation appeared to help their shooting touch. Michigan shot 50 percent from the field, including a deadly 47.6 percent from three-point range.
And no one wearing a maize and blue jersey was more accurate -- or deadly -- than Zack Novak. The junior guard shot 6-of-8 from long range, knocking down jumpers all over the court. Whether it was a fadeaway from the corner or a deep launch from behind the key, everything Novak put in the air seemed to land in the net.
Novak wasn't just giving his team a boost with a sharp shooting touch, either. ESPN cameras were enamored with him, yelling himself red while pumping up teammates in the huddle. If you wanted to know how much this game meant for Michigan, all you had to do was take a look at Novak.
But Michigan State obviously wanted to win this game, too. And though he may not have been as demonstrative, Kalin Lucas did all he could to carry his team to victory. With Lucious off the team, the Spartans needed their go-to guy more than ever. And the senior guard showed that if he's not fully recovered from his Achilles injury, he's getting pretty close to his old form.
There was no better example of this than during MSU's late 13-2 run, when Lucas sprinted to a loose ball and somehow scored a layup while falling out of bounds underneath the basket. It looked like an impossible angle to shoot from, yet Lucas got enough of the ball on the rim for it to circle around and into the net. How could the Spartans lose after a play like that?
Unfortunately, there were too many other times when Michigan State couldn't make a play. Lucious' absence never seemed more glaring than when Keith Appling handled the ball at point guard, allowing Lucas to play off the ball and spot up for a shot. But Appling would get trapped and not see a wide-open Lucas in the corner, jumping up and down for a pass that never came.
And how could the Spartans not capitalize on their size and talent advantage in the frontcourt? Throughout the season, Michigan has allowed big men -- even undersized power forwards like Concordia's Rocko Holmes -- to put up huge numbers. But John Beilein and his coaching staff appear to have made a defensive breakthrough against Oakland's Keith Benson, who looked NBA-ready against MSU and Tennessee, holding him to 11 points.
The same approach of denying passes into the post and sliding help over for quick double-teams worked wonders against MSU's Draymond Green and Delvon Roe, neither of whom had much impact in Thursday's game. Roe only managed one point and four rebounds. And Green was more notable for racking up fouls than points or rebounds.
Yet at the end of the game, Michigan State looked as if they might still pull out another close win at home. Michigan appeared to be hanging on, as if the clock couldn't turn to 0:00 fast enough. Beilein called timeouts to stop MSU from building momentum and give his team a chance to reset. But what they really needed was to make a shot, something that would provide just enough of a margin to win.
After Appling missed a 3-pointer that could've given MSU the lead, Michigan got the ball back and tried to burn off as much time as possible. But without scoring some more points, the Spartans still had a chance. With the shot clock running down, Stu Douglass got the ball on the wing and hoisted up a high-arching 3-pointer. To Michigan fans used to seeing Douglass miss clutch shots, it looked like a bad choice. But the cries of "No!" went to cheers of "Yes!" when the shot went in, giving Michigan a much needed five-point cushion.
Then 1,181 went back to zero, and Michigan had their biggest win of the season. For the Wolverines' Big Ten hopes and NCAA tournament chances, it still may be too late. That six-game tailspin dug a deep hole that put them near the bottom of the conference standings and their overall record near .500. But this may well have been the most important win in Beilein's tenure as Michigan coach. A young team in need of a signature victory now has something to build on for the future.
But where does this loss leave Michigan State? The Spartans were already treading water in the middle of the Big Ten standings, and losing to Michigan at home put their chin underneath the surface. On Thursday night, they looked like a team that still hasn't figured itself out. Lucious' dismissal only compounds the problems, as players have to adjust to new roles. Ten games remain on the schedule, but a tough run looms ahead. MSU still has tough road games at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Minnesota, and has rematches with Illinois and Purdue.
For a team that may have already collapsed under the weight of high expectations, this could be too much for Michigan State to overcome.