March 12, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - It was seven days in coming, but Michigan State finally got to celebrate a championship the way it's supposed to be celebrated.
Make it two for the price of one.
The joyful outburst - and confetti - the Spartans had to keep under wraps after closing out the regular-season title run with a loss to Ohio State at the Breslin Center came out in full flourish following their 68-64 victory over the Buckeyes to capture the Big Ten Tournament crown Sunday afternoon in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The rewards were worth the wait. Less than an hour after MSU defeated OSU for the second time in three meetings, it learned it would be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
Despite having finished the regular season tied for first and being assured of a reasonably high seed, something was missing.
"Oh definitely," said senior captain Draymond Green. "We didn't end the first season on a win, and that's never a good thing. But, we were able to put that behind us and start another season, and we went 3-0. Now we've got to put this behind us and start another season."
All those who thought the Spartans had reached their peak during a seven-game win streak in February were woefully mistaken. Michigan State played its consistently best series of games in the tournament while beating Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Even so, MSU is still tracking upward.
Until Green made a critical 3-point basket with 1:35 remaining, the conference player of the year was in danger of marking the official end of his Big Ten career with what would go down, by all accounts, as a lousy performance. Green scored 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting from the floor and had nine rebounds, but before making his big shot, fumbled away a couple of turnovers and misfired badly on his six previous field-goal attempts in the second half
"I shot a 14-foot shot from 18 feet," Green said of a costly airball during that stretch.
Point guard Keith Appling set Green's final shot up with a perfect ready-shoot pass for his fifth assist, but he ended up with just four points on 2-for-8 accuracy.
Fortunately for MSU, Brandon Wood, who grew up an hours' drive away in Kokomo, came through with a Spartan career-high 21 points and an even better defensive performance.
"I didn't play good today and Keith didn't have his greatest game, but different guys stepped up," said Green, the BTT Most Outstanding Player. "If we can get everybody going at the same time, I think this team can go as far as we can possibly go.
"If I can have a 4-for-15 shooting day and we still beat one of the best teams in the nation, I don't see that as peaking. We still have our best basketball ahead of us, and it's in the month of March when you want to be playing your best."
There is now a clear separation at the top of the Big Ten between the Spartans and the teams with which they shared the regular-season championship, Michigan and OSU. Michigan State is the only No. 1 seed - Kentucky, North Carolina and Syracuse are the others - that won its conference tournament.
"I think we earned it," said head coach Tom Izzo. "And we found a way to win. It was a dogfight and (Ohio State is) a 2-seed for a reason.
"It's really been a good team effort and this was a big win for us because it kind of validates that we belong. I'm not going to lie. I even questioned: are we good enough? And if we would have been a 2-seed, I would have completely understood that, too."
And if he knew going in that Green would shoot so poorly, "I'd say we would lose," Izzo said.
The Spartans' greatest attribute appears to be an indomitable nature that's impervious to negative events. When starting wing and key rebounder Branden Dawson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the previous game against Ohio State, MSU's chances of being a major player in postseason affairs dropped off significantly.
"Our M.O. the whole year has been to get better every day," Izzo said. "And that's what we did. We had a couple setbacks and still found a way to battle through it. What was neat about this is they proved they can take slap in the face, and get up and get some things done.
"We played pretty good basketball down here. We shot probably 55 percent from the field in the three games and pretty good from the three, and we defended pretty good. That says a lot coming off a tough loss."
Dawson's absence and a two-game losing streak had absolutely no affect on the way the Spartans approached the BTT. Michigan State compensated by ramping up its defensive effort, shooting the lights out and cranking up the fast break.
If the Spartans get their rebounding back to where it was earlier in the season - Ohio State had a 43-30 advantage on the boards - and the running game continues to improve, and Travis Trice's ailing ankle improves to say, 85 percent, they'll be a tough out in the national tourney.
"What's making me feel good is we're standing toe-to-toe with most people we're playing right now," Izzo said. "I don't know how far that will take us, and I wouldn't pick us as the most talented 1- or 2-seed, but I'd look at us as one of the better team 1- or 2-seeds that is out there."
Wood's dramatic turnaround in the six months since his transfer from Valparaiso, and the last few weeks in particular, has been a key development. Not known for playing defense in the Horizon League, according to Green, Wood's transformation into a lock-down defender has been nothing short of remarkable.
Buckeye guard William Buford, who sunk MSU with 23 points a week earlier, had just 11 this time, and only one point after halftime thanks in large part to Wood's defense.
"Coach has put me in a good situation, and Draymond believed in me and my team believed in me," Wood said. "They just wanted me to stay aggressive on offense and play as good defense as I can. What I've been trying to take pride on is actually wanting to play defense because it's really a mindset to play defense, and I'm started to enjoy it.
"I think that's what made me successful."
All that winning Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships in the same season for the first time in 12 years has only whetted MSU's appetite for a peak performance.
"It's not like, ho, hey, we beat a top team," Green said. "We're ecstatic about that, but it does give you momentum, and it just shows you different things you can do. It's a confidence-builder and a momentum-builder.
"Every year we saw people celebrating (a No.1 seed), and the camera has never been there to where we saw ourselves celebrating on TV. It's a great feeling to see yourselves pop up as the No. 1 seed and being able to celebrate it, and watch it on TV."