Derrick Nix remembers the first time he played Michigan. More than that, he remembers a lesson he learned in a practice days before it.
During the 2009-10 season, then-freshman Nix readied for one the nation’s fiercest rivalries along with Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and the rest of then-No. 5 MSU men’s basketball team.
But playing around in a mid-January practice resulted in a sharp and succinct tongue-lashing from a couple of the team’s most notorious leaders.
It was a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.
“(Draymond Green) and Raymar Morgan kind of put me in my place,” Nix recalled Monday. “They were like ‘This isn’t a regular game. You’re playing Michigan.’ I didn’t know how much it meant and it just rubbed off and now I feel the same way.”
Now a senior, Nix said he’s carried a similar intensity into the practices leading up to Tuesday’s showdown with No. 4 Michigan. And this time around, the team needs every ounce of intensity Nix has to spare.
The No. 8 Spartans (20-4 overall, 9-2 Big Ten) host the Wolverines (21-3, 8-3) at Breslin Center (9 p.m., ESPN) in the first-ever matchup between the two teams with both ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll.
Given the strength of the Big Ten this season, MSU head coach Tom Izzo said the rivalry game against one of the nation’s top teams will provide an accurate measuring stick of the progress of his team.
“There is no secret that I have said all along that Indiana and Michigan are the top two teams in this league and then there are about three or four of us that are fighting to get into that league or that group, that atmosphere,” Izzo said. “It’s games like this that give you the chance to see where you are.
“I don’t think there is any question that I am excited to see where we are.”
In a game ripe with intriguing matchups, perhaps the most interesting will be between junior guard Keith Appling and Michigan guard Trey Burke.
Burke is second in the Big Ten in scoring with 18.2 points per game and widely is considered among the nation’s best point guards.
Appling leads the Spartans with 14.1 points per game, which earned a spot with Burke as one of 12 national finalists for the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award.
However, Appling said maintaining the team’s defensive capabilities will be a virtue when it comes to guarding Burke.
“He’s a pretty good player and our defense principles are not going to change,” Appling said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to me mano a mano guarding the ball.”
The Spartans are 5-3 against Michigan since John Beilein took over the Wolverines before the 2007-08 season, but the teams split a season ago with each side winning on their home floor. It’s the first of two season matchups between the in-state rivals with the second coming on March 2 or 3 at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor.
But in a season of big games for both teams in a loaded conference, Izzo said he’s ready for one of the rivalry’s biggest games in history.
“Our players know it is a big game and I am sure their players know it’s a big game,” Izzo said. “When you look at the national rankings, it is one of the biggest Michigan-Michigan State games.
“For it to be this way is great for (the media), great for the fans, great for the water coolers, great for the coffee shops, but I think it will be exciting for our players, too.”