NEW YORK — John Beilein likes to show his Michigan basketball team pictures of dogs to prepare the Wolverines for their upcoming matchups.
A chihuahua, a poodle — those represent the opponents. He wants his team to play like pit bulls.
So what kind of dog is it going to take for the No. 5 seed Wolverines (24-7, 13-5 Big Ten) to top the Big Ten Tournament’s No. 1 seed and in-state rival Michigan State (28-3, 16-2) in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Saturday?
“It’s gotta be the meanest pit bull you’ve ever seen,” Beilein said with a smile after Michigan dispatched No. 4 seed Nebraska 77-58 during the quarterfinals of the tournament Friday. “You gotta be ready to play. [Michigan State] is incredibly talented, really well-coached.”
When the game tips off at 2 p.m. ET (CBS), it will be Michigan’s third game in three days. Last year, the reigning conference tournament champions won four games in four days. The plan is to do that again. But first, the Wolverines have to get past the Spartans in the semifinals.
One thing is clear: Michigan gladly accepts the challenge of taking on the second-ranked team in the country.
The Wolverines want Michigan State. Sure, the Spartans have the lottery-pick prospects in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. But the Wolverines aren’t lacking any confidence themselves. They weren’t afraid to talk some trash against Nebraska, and they deserved that right. Their play backed it up.
“We want to play Michigan State, it’s as simple as that,” freshman Jordan Poole said. “We don’t pay attention to those guys. Obviously, they got a lot of hype and stuff going on with the team, but at the end of the day, we’re still Michigan. We’ve got a lot of confidence.
“It feels like the championship game every time we play them.”
Michigan not only played well, it looked comfortable on the Madison Square Garden floor. Playing an extra game and not receiving a double-bye to the quarterfinals turned out in Michigan’s favor, Poole said, allowing the team to feel out the venue.
“We came out [Friday] and we just played our game,” Poole said.
“Winning is fun,” forward Moe Wagner added. “Winning at the Garden is a lot of fun. Obviously, the way we play is a lot of fun.”
Both Michigan and Michigan State had the louder crowds during their respective matchups Friday. The semifinal will have quite the atmosphere.
Now, the game moves to a venue dubbed “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” adding even more allure to an already intriguing matchup between two rivals.
Wagner said to expect a great game in a great arena. He scored a season-high 27 points against the Spartans the lone time the two teams square off this season, with Michigan handing Michigan State one of the Spartans’ three losses this season by a 82-72 margin on the road. He didn’t want to think much about the upcoming battle against the Spartans, at least for the ensuing hour or two after the game.
Michigan suffered a blowout loss at Nebraska in January and avenged the performance Friday. Freshman Isaiah Livers wants to continue the revenge-tour mentality, even if the Wolverines took down the Spartans last time out.
“I’m just looking forward to playing them again,” Livers said.
The Wolverines let the Nebraska win digest for a couple of hours before meeting Friday night to discuss their game plan to handle Michigan State. Wagner and the rest of the Wolverines realize Michigan State didn’t capture the Big Ten regular-season title by accident. Now, they want to take advantage of their shot at the current kings of the conference and get one step closer to a championship here.
“Those guys are great players,” Wagner said. “But to be honest with you, I’m so grateful for my own team and if we do the things we do well, good, we have a chance against anybody.”
“Unbelievable opportunity,” Duncan Robinson said. “Two really powerful programs, in-state rivalry. We’ll be gunnin’ for each other.”