March 10, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
Michigan State suffered its first letdown of the season midway through the first half of its 31st game.
Center Derrick Nix, the only departing Spartan being honored on Senior Day, found out via teammate Russell Byrd that Michigan had lost to league-leading Indiana in Ann Arbor, which meant MSU fell out of contention for the Big Ten championship with three-quarters of Sunday night's game against Northwestern to play.
Nix, who desperately wanted to leave school with his third conference title in four years even if it would come with a maize-and-blue bow wrapped around it, suddenly slumped.
"Russ said, `Michigan lost,' and that was that," Nix said.
Until that news cast a temporary pall over the Breslin Center, Michigan State had persevered through every injury, every disappointment and every controversy, and showed up for its next game ready to compete at the highest level it was capable of reaching.
But now the No. 10 Spartans, who had avoided the upsets and meltdowns that had beset every other ranked team, were flat-lining and reeling against a team that had a 13-17 overall record and was 4-13 in the Big Ten.
"Coach, I'm gonna need some help," Nix told coach Tom Izzo on the bench. "I just found out Michigan lost."
A 13-point lead shrunk to seven at halftime and had completed evaporated when Wildcats tied the score, 51-51, on a pair of free throws with 7:16 to play.
True to form, however, MSU compartmentalized that setback and rose to the occasion yet again. The Spartans out-scored Northwestern 18-8 in the final 5:16 of the regular season to pull out a 71-61 victory.
The overused sports term "microcosm" comes to mind in terms of the way that final game within a game mirrored all those Michigan State had played to date.
It's a quality that could set the Spartans apart from the rest of the field during one-and-done time, which they will begin Friday night as the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and which will feature six current, or former, Top-10 teams. Izzo said the BTT will be tougher than some of the Final Fours the Spartans have competed in.
"It's going to help us a lot because getting up for every team is hard," Nix said. "And if you can do that even against the teams that aren't as good, it shows the character and the discipline that your team's got, and I think we do a good job with that."
It was an unprecedented show of resilience even for this bounce-back team. Michigan State had gotten up for Northwestern twice - once when it was still playing for a championship, and again in midstream, with the help of a revitalized crowd, when sending Nix out with a win, pride and the integrity of the game were the only things still on the line.
Afterward, in front of the huge crowd of fans who stayed for the Senior Day ceremony, and again in his postgame press conference, Izzo reiterated that while there's nothing ever bad about winning a championship, he's also not keen on having one handed to him, least of all by an archrival.
But, he also said he underestimated what another crown would have meant to the players, especially Nix, who previously helped hoist two regular season banners and one from last season's Big Ten Tournament.
"For me, it was a no-brainer," Izzo said. "Just control what we can control and move on. (But) players... uh, you know, I've won seven of those things and some of those guys haven't won one yet, so I think it has a bigger effect.
"But I understand. There were so many emotional things that went on these past couple days."
There are still championship banners, trophies and rings out there for the Spartans to win. And, MSU is as healthy as it's been all season and well-equipped to deal with the rigors of Big Ten and NCAA tournament play.
Guard play is vital to postseason success and point guard Keith Appling, who led MSU with 16 points against Northwestern, has emerged from his funk and backup Travis Trice has regained much of the form lost through offseason illness and a game-opening concussion.
Nix, who bid adieu to the hometown fans with 10 points, four rebounds and a career-high-tying six assists, and fellow big man Adreian Payne give the Spartans a bona fide inside threat as well. Plus, Payne has added a new wrinkle -- outside shooting that has produced 16 3-point field goals in the last 14 games.
Mentally, Michigan State's coping mechanisms are so well-honed, weird tipoff times and short preparation periods between games shouldn't be an issue.
"Going into the tournaments, we want to focus," said sophomore forward Branden Dawson, who'll get his first postseason experience after missing last year's with a knee injury. "Derrick Nix hit it right on the head when he said the main thing we need to do is eliminate all distractions just like last year when I wasn't able to play with those guys.
"At the beginning of the season, most people doubted us a lot and didn't think we were going to be a good team. Even coach doubted us because he didn't think we were going to be as good without Draymond Green and Austin Thornton's leadership. But Derrick Nix, Russell Byrd and Keith Appling have stepped up as three leaders."
It's highly unlikely that anything will possibly come up over coming weeks that the Spartans haven't already experienced and handled successfully.
"Coach just told us that for 31 games, we always stepped up and played as a team," Dawson said. "The regular season is over and we have to put that in the back of our minds.
"I think this team will handle it well. We've been growing, and we have had some big distractions. But, we didn't give up. We went on a three-game losing streak and no one hung their heads, no one got down on themselves. We just kept fighting and playing together. Now we just have to go play."
Whether the Spartans defend their Big Ten Tournament championship or make it to their seventh Final Four in 15 years could be determined by circumstances beyond even their control and resolve, but Izzo likes their chances.
"We found a way to not do what so many other teams have done and now we have something to look forward to," he said of avoiding letdowns. "I've had a lot of great teams, including maybe a national championship team that didn't do that, and I'm proud of them for that.
"Some of it's going to depend on what we do as we move on. It won't change the fact that this team went through the one of the most brutal schedules, it was ranked No. 1 last week, in the whole country. So we've ducked nobody, (and) I'm so proud of that. We've got a lot of things to feel good about."
Nevertheless, Izzo pointed out that this team's legacy will be shaped by what it does or doesn't do the rest of the way.
"The first measuring stick, I think we passed," he said. "Now the ones coming up will be even more critical. I've got a lot of people I want to get another shot at this year, to be honest with you. I know this, we're going to be playing somebody that was ranked - Minnesota and Illinois were Top-10 teams at one time - and when you think of it that way it's a scary, scary proposition we're about to come upon
"It all comes down to matchups now and the thing I like is we've competed with everybody we played. So no matter if they're running the Princeton offense, if they're running Indiana's, Michigan's, Minnesota's, if they're trying to beat you up or just finesse ya, we've gone against them all and were knocking on the door at the end.
"Now we've got to learn to take one more step."