Michigan State Basketball: The Story Behind a True in-State Rivalry

Sean MerrimanCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2013

Photo from usatoday.com
Photo from usatoday.com

It’s a rite of passage; the passing of the torch, or the Paul Bunyan Trophy for matter....

I remember watching Michigan and Michigan State play that Saturday afternoon in March of 2000. I was 14 years old at the time, a young kid still trying to grasp a true understanding of what this in-state rivalry was all about.

I remember watching Mateen Cleaves, slashing, passing, scoring and looking exactly like the type of player that was capable of leading his team to a National Championship.

Cleaves was outstanding that day, leading the Spartans to a commanding 51-point win over the rival-Wolverines.

I remember as the final minutes trickled down on the clock and as Tom Izzo brought in the bench players to close out the game, Cleaves jogged to center court, dropped to his knees and kissed the giant Spartan “S” on the Breslin Center court. It was a moment that I would never forget, and I can say with confidence that I am not alone in making that statement.

“Oh, I get it,” I said to myself at the time.

This is what the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was all about.

The rivalry was just as compelling leading up to Tuesday night’s game, and that same feeling came back to me as the final buzzer sounded and the scoreboard read 75-52 in favor of the Spartans.

It was a feeling of gratification. A feeling of self-satisfaction and pride, knowing that the school I spent five years of my life at, a school I have cheered for since I first picked up a basketball as a toddler, gave so much back to me on this one night—this time, in the form of a 23-point win over our in-state rival.

I think I speak on behalf of many MSU fans when I say, we don’t necessarily hate the University of Michigan. We hate those who obnoxiously cheer for the University and refer to MSU as their “little brother,” despite sporting a Western Michigan or Central Michigan diploma on their bedroom wall.

That right there is where that sense of pride comes into play. That feeling I felt on Tuesday night as a 27-year-old working adult, and that same feeling I felt back in March of 2000 as a 14-year-old grade school student, finally grasping a true understanding of what this rivalry really meant.

Of course, Michigan State fans know and understand that this rivalry is not as big as the Michigan, Ohio State rivalry game—it never will be. But don’t fool yourself to believe that U-M fans don’t care about and embrace this in-state rivalry.


In my opinion, there are three main aspects that fuel a rivalry. They are 1: the schools proximity to one another, 2: the history between those two schools and how close the games have been between those two schools and 3: fan interaction.

Michigan State and the University of Michigan are separated by approximately 60 miles. A simple drive down I-96, followed by a straight shot down US-23, and you’re officially in Wolverine country.

As far as how close the games have been as of late, over the past five seasons MSU holds a narrow 5-3 lead on Michigan in basketball, while the Wolverines hold a slim 6-4 margin over the Spartans in football over the past decade.

And then, of course, there is fan interaction. From Mike Hart calling MSU their “little brother” in 2007, to Mark Dantonio setting up the count-down-to-U-M clock in the team’s practice facility and then running off four consecutive wins over the Wolverines, we have seen it all when it comes to this in-state clash.


Another stepping stone was added to this rivalry Tuesday night. A blowout win for the Spartans will only help this plot thicken as the teams are expected to meet again in the first weekend in March.

You can’t judge a season by one night, and you certainly can’t judge a rivalry by one game, either. You can bet that the rematch in Ann Arbor will be a lot closer than Tuesday night’s game between these two storied programs.

But for now, and until the next game is played, this in-state rivalry belongs to the guys in Green and White.

The same MSU greats who kissed the floor back in March of 2000 were at Tuesday night’s game in East Lansing, including Mateen Cleaves.

It’s a night that all of them will soon not forget, and the same should go for all of you MSU fans as well. Embrace this matchup of in-state schools and think all the way back to that day in March, 2000.

“This is what a rivalry is all about,” I said to myself that day.

At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was right in making that statement. Now, 13 years later, I know that I couldn’t have been more spot on.

Follow Sean on twitter @srmerriman.