NEW YORK -- The narratives for Michigan basketball and Michigan State basketball are fairly typical year to year. Michigan is filled with perimeter-oriented players, guys who love to shoot the 3. Michigan State is the tough, physical group.
But John Beilein wanted to change that mindset heading into Saturday's Big Ten semifinal against the Spartans.
"I talked about it ahead of time," the Michigan head coach said. "I said don't back off. If it gets chippy, get in there. Every team you play at this level, especially rivalry games, they're going to test people. That's OK. We're going to stand in there and be tough."
And it didn't take long for it play out. There were multiple scuffles in the opening minutes of the game, with former Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews getting into it with Michigan State players after early baskets.
Michigan came out fired up from the opening tip, out-toughing Michigan State every step of the way en route to a 75-64 win and a trip to the Big Ten title game.
The Wolverines will need more of the same in Sunday's championship against Purdue, which ended Penn State's run in a 78-70 win Saturday night. Purdue starts four seniors alongside battle-tested sophomore guard Carsen Edwards and beat Michigan twice in the regular season. The Boilermakers' veteran experience won't be surprised by the Wolverines -- even if Michigan isn't exactly announcing its newfound intestinal fortitude.
"We're not beating our chest about it," Beilein said. "We're just saying there are a lot of ways to be tough, and we're going to be tough."
That's not the typical company line from a Beilein-coached Michigan team, but this isn't your typical Beilein-coached team. This season's version of the Wolverines is by far the best defensive group Beilein has had since he arrived in Ann Arbor in 2007. It ranks in the top 10 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and is one of the 25 best defensive rebounding teams in the country. Michigan has held seven straight opponents to less than one point per possession and has now beaten Michigan State twice -- both times away from home.
"I think they're a little tougher, personally," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I think Matthews is a great athlete that prides himself on guarding. And [Zavier] Simpson 100 percent prides himself on his defense. So you've got two pretty good defenders in places where, that I think that is important. ... And maybe, I don't know, him, their staff still figured out at the end of the day you do gotta check people well to win. So, I think his team is a better defensive team."
While Michigan doesn't have a top-five offense like it has had in three of the past five years, the Wolverines are a more balanced unit than in the past. They've had seven players attempt at least 50 3-pointers but are also capable of going off the dribble. They took 33 free throws against Michigan State on Saturday and got to the basket at will early on.
But it was the Wolverines' defense and toughness that set the tone against the Spartans, in a rivalry game that likely ended Michigan State's hopes at a 1-seed.
Michigan State now faces a layoff until the NCAA tournament that will be 12 or 13 days, depending on how the committee places the Spartans. They had a shot at a 1-seed if they had won the Big Ten tournament, but those hopes are gone now. The Spartans' body of work just isn't enough. They're below .500 against Quadrant 1 teams, sitting at 3-4 -- with a nonconference SOS in the 200s.
A Michigan win over Purdue would dash the Boilermakers' outside chance at a 1-seed as well. Matt Painter's team fell in the rankings after a three-game losing streak in February, but the Boilermakers have six Quadrant 1 wins and are 12-5 against Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 teams. Michigan is also looking to avenge a regular-season sweep at the hands of Purdue.
The Wolverines are playing their best basketball at the right time, winning eight in a row heading into Sunday. A ninth win would secure their second straight conference tournament title -- even if this season's version is doing it a different way.
"We take everything personal," Poole said. "We take it personal if a guy wants to score on us or says we're not tough. It's definitely a pride issue. We're one of the tougher teams mentally."
Sunday against Purdue will be another chance to prove it.