Jan. 18, 2012
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
The lesson was one the newcomers hoped to avoid throughout the course of their Michigan State basketball careers, but at least now they know.
This is what it feels like to lose to Michigan.
It's often been said that nobody can ever truly appreciate the highs and lows this rivalry produces on a visceral level until they have the privilege of experiencing it first-hand, and that was clearly the case in the MSU locker room Tuesday night following the 60-59 last-second defeat in the Crisler Center.
The pain was palpable, and for good reason based on the series of gruesome contortions they put themselves through for the better part of 40 minutes.
"It definitely hurts," said senior co-captain Draymond Green. "It's a pain like no other."
A tentative start by some of the uninitiated seemed to rob Michigan State of the energy coach Tom Izzo and Green said was needed to beat an archrival in a hostile road environment. And, the Wolverines dictated the terms of engagement while jumping out to a 13-4 lead.
For the remainder of the first half and during the early stages of the second, every time the Spartans made it a two-possession game, their inability to come up with defensive stops allowed Michigan to rebuild its cushion, which ballooned to 11 points with 12:18 remaining.
There was still time for the young Spartans to start catching on to this Michigan-Michigan State thing, and senior co-captain Austin Thornton, who was sidelined most of the first half with flu-like symptoms, was the first to make things click.
The first points of his career against U-M came on a 3-point field goal. Brandon Wood, the senior transfer from Valparaiso who missed his first five shots against the Wolverines, including one that caromed off the side of the backboard, added a three and the deficit was down to 47-44.
A few minutes later, freshman Brandan Kearney, whose steadily improving play has resulted in a gradually expanding role, made a 3-pointer from the left corner to give MSU its first lead, 50-49. Sophomore point guard Keith Appling's driving layup completed the 16-2 run to give the Spartans a three-point lead.
And after Michigan's Trey Burke and Thornton exchanged 3-pointers, MSU was five minutes away from redemption. The Spartans failed to protect what became a four-point lead, but still had a chance after U-M's Jordan Morgan got a hand on Appling's shot with eight seconds to go.
Wood rebounded the miss and passed the ball to Green, but his straight-on shot from the foul line was too strong and his attempted tip-in missed the mark as time expired.
Having followed Michigan and MSU basketball intently while growing up, Kearney came to realize he only had an inkling of how it would be.
"The intensity was crazy," the Detroit Southeastern High School grad said. "It was the most intensified it has been since playing in the Big Ten. I grew up around both programs, so I already knew how the rivalry is.
"But I didn't think the pain would be this bad. I really am hurting after this."
Kearney added a 3-pointer and finished with six points and two rebounds in 12 minutes. Afterward, Izzo regretted not playing him longer.
"I thought our young guys really looked young; I thought the inexperience hurt us," Izzo said. "And so I had play Keith Appling so many minutes that by the end he was just walking on his knees.
"The only freshman that I had that played pretty good was Brandan Kearney, the one I played the least. I'm disappointed in some things we did, but I'm probably as disappointed in me. I just did not get a good rotation in there, which I've been complaining about, and that falls on me."
Whether this was a necessary process for this team to go through as it figures out who and what it is will depend on how it responds.
If a third-straight loss to Michigan can be good for anything, it may be for what was revealed to Izzo for the first time this season in the heat of the Crisler crucible.
"We did enough things to win the game, we did enough things to lose the game," he said. "When you do enough things to lose a game, you're not going to win on the road, especially in your rival's back yard.
"I've got a pretty good basketball team that for the first time didn't play with the toughness that I'd like us to play with. We've got a couple-three guys who are going to have to get tougher, and they will."
Izzo could have continued his thought by saying their will be consequences if they don't because the remainder of the schedule has meat grinder written all over it, beginning with Saturday's game against Purdue in the Breslin Center.
Then, after another home game against Minnesota, MSU visits new league-leader Illinois before the rematch with Michigan on Feb. 5 in Breslin.
"To actually be a part of this was a big step as far as me personally," Kearney said. "The next step for us in this rivalry is to get a win."
If the pain Michigan State felt after losing to Michigan was due to a critical growth spurt, then it will be worth it because the freshmen will no longer be freshmen and experience is the best teacher of the inexperienced.
Appling seemed to promise as much.