March 12, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- While Michigan State has never taken the opportunity to win any championship lightly, the Big Ten Tournament has meant different things to Spartan teams over the years.
Some of coach Tom Izzo's regular season Big Ten champs saw the tournament, which began in 1998, as a means to add more trophies and banners to their collection. Others may have been overly anxious to move on to the NCAA tourney. Still others approached it as a necessity to improve MSU's seed in the Big Dance, if not vital to extending its string of NCAA appearances.
Then there was Drew Neitzel's gritty 2007-08 team that ended the regular season in fourth place.
Neitzel and fellow senior Drew Naymick, and juniors Goran Suton and Travis Walton went all-in on the Big Ten Tournament because it represented that group's last chance to end the program's six-year stretch without a league title of either kind and send the two Drews out with their only championship rings.
After beating Ohio State in the quarterfinals in Indianapolis, the Spartans fell in Saturday's semi to arch-nemesis Wisconsin. The foul-plagued 65-63 defeat against the Badgers remains one of the most bitter of the Izzo era.
"I'll be honest with you, I want this to hurt as much as it does so I can remember every freaking minute of it," a choked-up Izzo said afterward in the locker room. "I'm not going to lie to you, it's not easy for (the players). I just coached the game. I might have put my heart into it, but not like they did. I didn't play the game; they played the game. Yesterday, the players worked their butts off. Last night, this morning they were unbelievable - UN-believable.
"I'll get over it, but I'll never forget it. We're going to go down swinging, I can promise you that."
A unique dynamic is in play for this season's Spartans heading into Friday night's quarterfinal game against the Iowa-Northwestern first-round winner at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The realistic preseason expectations of a Big Ten regular season championship and the early No. 1 ranking were eaten away by an unprecedented series of absences, injuries and illnesses. The team Izzo has unabashedly said is among the four best-equipped he's had to make a run at the Final Four finished tied with Wisconsin for second in the conference and is a No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
Nevertheless, in a manner of speaking, the Spartans' goals are still in front of them, including the Big Ten championship, though it will have to come Atlantic Coast Conference-style - the ACC considers its tournament winner as the true league champ and didn't even start recognizing a regular season championship until 1990.
"This year, Michigan won (the Big Ten) outright, so you never know what's going to happen," said junior swingman Branden Dawson. "Like Coach says, the regular season is behind us so let's focus on winning the Big Ten championship and the national championship."
Izzo has never gone into into postseason play with such an affected team. Dawson (hand), senior point guard Keith Appling (wrist, hip), senior big man Adreian Payne (foot), junior point guard Travis Trice (blisters, virus), sophomore guard Gary Harris (ankle) and sophomore center Matt Costello (mononucleosis) are all healthy and together for the first time since the 73-56 Big Ten opening win at Indiana on Jan. 4.
The ailing Spartans missed so much practice time and so many game-minutes, it's almost as though they are just now starting the real season, which will consist of nine games if they win out.
So, becoming the first MSU team to win the Big Ten Tournament and the automatic NCAA tournament bid without also claiming the regular season crown - the Spartans won both in 1999, 2000 and 2012 - has taken on a newfound significance.
"The last time I wasn't able to participate," said Dawson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the regular season finale against Ohio State and didn't accompany the team to Indy in '12. "That's definitely a goal for myself and for this team. Just to see those guys cut down the nets was something I really wanted to do and I know these guys are feeling the same thing.
"Our growth is continuing as a team and we're just starting to get our rhythm back." The Big Ten Tournament presents Michigan State with a second chance to accomplish something it was denied while losing seven of its last 12 games.
"We had the Big Ten championship right there in our hands, and we let it go," said sophomore guard Denzel Valentine. "This is big for me because I've never won a Big Ten championship before and that's one of the goals I've had since I came here. If we win this tournament, and we have a really good chance, we'll get that banner and I'll get that ring.
"This is our chance to go out there and show the whole country we can still play with anybody in the nation and show them we deserved the Big Ten championship."
Admittedly, time is quickly running out on MSU, but if Appling, Payne, Harris, Dawson, Valentine & Co. can pull up before crashing into the mountain, the momentum may be great enough to launch the Spartans back to the peak.
"The truth of the matter is every game and every practice we can have benefits this team -- a lot," Izzo said. "We just need to play together. There's enough talent here, there's enough caring here, there are enough positive things here to make a run.
"It is frustrating not to be able to do what you know you can do, but is the frustration level any higher? Only because I know I have a real good team."
If there's an advantage to be realized from what MSU has gone through, is that there's a lot more tread left on this team's tires at this point than any Izzo has taken into the postseason. Harris leads the team with 921 minutes, but Valentine, who's second with 907, is the only member of the main playing group to appear in all 31 games.
Payne has played in seven fewer games than at the same time last season, Dawson in 10 fewer and Appling in three.
"I think our fitness levels are back on everybody except Payne a little bit, but he was a lot better in the last game," Izzo said of Sunday's 69-67 loss at Ohio State. "I had my marathon man (equipment manager Dave) Pruder chew me out Monday because we had two-a-days this time of year. I said, `Yeah but, I've got three or four guys who didn't practice for three, four and five weeks.
"I'm trying to do what's best for the whole instead of just what's best for the pockets of guys who were out three weeks, four weeks or five weeks."
As far as Dawson and Valentine are concerned, fatigue should be the least of Michigan State's issues as it comes down the homestretch.
"Once we get rolling, we're going to be fine," Dawson said. "I feel good. I only played 21 games, so my legs are fresh. Coach always is saying, `B.J., you're just as fresh as a daisy.' It definitely can be to our advantage."
Added Valentine, "This is what I signed up for and what I want to do. For me to complain about how long we're practicing and how many minutes I'm playing is just stupid to me. I have a few nitpicky injuries here and there, but nothing big. There's less wear and tear on us as a team, so we should be pretty healthy going in. Plus, it's our last games. There's no time to be tired."
The Spartans just have to avoid tripping over their own feet, like they did after a spectacular 12-0 run in their last game.
"That is who I think we are," Izzo said of that spurt against the Buckeyes. "But you can't be who you are for minutes. You have to do it for a lot of minutes.
"I don't think any tournament could mean more to Michigan State than this one."
It's not asking a lot, Izzo reasoned, since he isn't demanding anything of the Spartans they didn't already prove they could do with remarkable efficiency and consistency.
And, "it can happen, like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to bring back some of the magic we had earlier in the year when we had everybody playing together."