Feb. 13, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
For the first time all season, there was virtually no talk about what's wrong with Michigan State -- only what's right.
A 75-52 bushwhacking of No. 4 Michigan Tuesday night in the Breslin Center rendered all discussions of injuries, turnover issues and out-of-sync play moot, if not mute, for at least a day or so.
The eighth-ranked Spartans have been telling tales of what their team will look like when they put it all together.
Against the Wolverines, they showed it.
Starting with Branden Dawson's jump-hook 13 seconds into the game, MSU proceeded to dismantle U-M in every way possible while leading from wire-to-wire.
"That was the worst we played in a long, long time," Michigan coach John Beilen said, "and credit Michigan State for that."
Offensively, the Spartans imposed their will by scoring inside - they had a 24-8 advantage in the paint by halftime and a 36-22 bulge when the final buzzer sounded - and outside with Gary Harris scoring a team-high 17 points on the strength of five 3-point field goals.
The defensive charge, led by point guard Keith Appling, limited Michigan's vaunted backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to 20 points, 14 below their combined average. The sublime Burke still struck for 18, but the heretofore hot-shooting Hardaway withered under the defensive pressure of Dawson & Co., and connected on just 1-of-11 tries.
Meantime, Glenn Robinson III, Michigan's other breakout threat, also finished with two points, on 1-for-4 shooting, and the Wolverines limped back to Ann Arbor with just four second-chance points thanks to MSU's 41-30 dominance in the rebounding department.
"Keep it in perspective that we probably played our best game in three years," said coach Tom Izzo, who praised his staff for the way it prepared the players for everything U-M had in its arsenal. "We played about as well as we can play, and they did not play as well."
In terms of accomplishments, it was the highest-ranked Michigan team ever defeated by the Spartans, eclipsing the 91-79 smack-down of the No. 6 Wolverines in 1986.
And yet, senior co-captain and center Derrick Nix, who was a maestro in the middle with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists, wasn't satisfied with where the Spartans set the bar.
"We proved that we can compete with anybody in the country," Nix said. "Michigan has a great team, regardless of the score, but you have to give our guys credit. We just did what coach told us to do, and it worked.
"Our frontcourt and our backcourt are doing better together, but I feel like we can get even better than what we did tonight. That was like a glimpse of things to come. We can be as great as we want to be. Our success is upon ourselves."
From the chaos and confusion created by players missing in action for various reasons and lost practice time, has somehow come efficiency and indefatigable effort.
Michigan State committed just eight turnovers, marking the third straight game with single-digit giveaways. A team that has every reason to look bedraggled because of what's been an inordinate amount of physical and mental wear and tear, somehow appears to be getting stronger.
Harris, despite shoulder and back pains, and Denzel Valentine, who gave Izzo more reasons to smile -- with nine rebounds, seven points, four assists and three turnovers - than to scowl in 24 minutes, have broken through the freshman wall.
The Spartans blew open a 38-24 halftime lead by outscoring Michigan 24-12 in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
"We asked for 40 minutes of relentless work, and I think I got every minute of that out of them," Izzo said.
Junior center Adreian Payne, who finished with four points and four rebounds, was pleased with the way MSU has shifted the focus while maintaining its hold on the top spot in the Big Ten standings.
"We had a lot of things clicking, as far as the inside game and the outside game," he said. "Nix and Gary were making a lot of shots and Keith was doing a great job of making shots, penetrating and creating his own shots.
"It feels good to be talking about the progress we've made as a team instead of those other things. You know we've got injuries, but we never used them as an excuse. This part of the season is winning time. You've got to win games if you want to get better."
The challenge will be for the Spartans to maintain their attitude when they don't have their archrival and a frenzied crowd to provide them with lift, starting Saturday at Nebraska.
"I think Appling is starting to be a better and better leader," Izzo said. "Nix's focus today at the shoot-around was phenomenal, and I have to capture that and make them understand that's the way it's got to be.
"Our young guys are getting better. Dawson's getting better. Payne and Nix are something to deal with. The thing I said why this team could be good a couple weeks ago is that we've got an inside and we've got an outside, and if we can get Trav (Trice) back (from the injured list), we'll have another shooter and that would really help this team."
By making what had been the nation's No. 1-ranked team just two weeks earlier look so ordinary, the Spartans have opened up another dimension for themselves.
"The expectations just got higher so we have to bring more and more every game," said Valentine. "We can't take any team lightly and we have to play every team as if it's Michigan."