Every player in every sport knows any game in the MSU-Michigan rivalry is intense.
It’s not something you can prepare for by watching tape.
That’s a lesson the MSU women’s basketball team learned the hard way last season as it dropped the first game on the road to U-M 64-55. It was the first time in six years that the Spartans lost to their in-state rival.
This time the team is much more prepared.
“I thought last year we were so young, and even the upperclassmen were inexperienced in terms of play time, so they didn’t have that experience,” head coach Suzy Merchant said.
Freshman forwards Lykendra Johnson and Courtney Schiffauer will be starting the game Thursday, but they should be aided by the wealth of depth and experience on the team. There are seven players on the team that averaged at least 10 minutes last season. An eighth, sophomore forward Taja Wilson, hasn’t played this season due to an ACL tear.
“We’ve had extra time to deal with it. We’ve talked about Michigan week, Michigan week, Michigan week,” Merchant said. “I’m sure they’re talking about Michigan State week. There’s nothing more significant than an intense, in-state rival. Our kids know it, their kids know it. I’m sure whatever they’ve been doing well, we’ve been doing well, sometimes that goes out the window when it comes down to competing for bragging rights.”
And while that depth can help in bringing younger players into the rivalry, it can be a burden for a coach, Merchant said.
“I think it’s kind of a double-edged sword. You have the depth, which changes the complexity of your team, the dynamics of your team, depending on who you’re playing,” Merchant said. “That’s obviously positive, when someone’s not playing well you sit them down. But it also changes, maybe you sit a shooter down. For example, we sat (senior guard) Mia (Johnson) down a little bit here and she’s a spot up three-point shooter. Now we add Courtney Schiffauer in there who’s not so much a three-point shooter but more of a driver. So it changes the dynamics of your offense a little.”
“On the one side I like it, I like the ability, you know the bench is the best teacher. On the other side of it, you have to be careful it doesn’t take away what you’re doing and completely change what you’ve instilled to this point.”
But given a choice of having an experienced team, Merchant didn’t flinch.
“I’d rather have a deep team,” Merchant said. “I think the biggest thing is keeping everybody on board and not letting anybody feel sorry for themselves.”
With three of the next four games at home, the Spartans will need contributions from everybody to help get to the top of the conference standings. After the stretch, the team heads to the road to face Minnesota and Illinois before looking for revenge against Ohio State and Indiana, MSU’s two conference losses this season.
And while the Spartans are looking at this week’s rivalry to vault them into the back half of the conference season, their eyes are still on the end of the year prize.
“You get to a point where if that’s what you want to be doing in March, which is what we want to be doing,” Merchant said. “You always got to be thinking ahead. At the same time realistically you can’t really be thinking so far in advance you forget about what you’re doing today.”