March 15, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - Michigan State's health was proclaimed up to par a few days prior to opening the Big Ten Tournament in Friday night's quarterfinal game against Northwestern.
Excuses no more, the Spartans' diminished confidence and once-sagging swagger appeared to be back to full strength by the time they built a 20-point lead with 48 seconds remaining in the first half.
First, there was the slick rebound Gavin Schilling tipped down to Denzel Valentine, who made an even slicker cross-court pass through the lane to Kenny Kaminski, whose slicker-yet 3-point field goal put MSU ahead 22-12.
There was Keith Appling driving the lane with the bravado of old, making the layup, spilling to the deck and getting right back up without a grimace. There was Matt Costello going up strong for a power-dunk.
And, there was Branden Dawson with the brace on his shooting hand, pulling up for a what-are-you-thinking-oh-good-shot jumper from just inside the foul line, 40-20.
By the time the Spartans walked off the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor to a chorus of cheers at 10:47 p.m., sanity had been restored and their world was back on its axis thanks to a 67-51 victory against the No. 11 seed Wildcats.
The acid test for MSU's newfound return to its old self will come in today's semifinal against Bo Ryan's Wisconsin, the tournament's No. 2 seed and inflictor of so much turmoil and torture to the green-and-white side since losing to the Spartans in the 2000 Final Four.
Dawson sprung back to life with 16 points, his most since putting 20 on Penn State in the Big Ten opener on Dec. 31, and nine rebounds. Appling had only six points, but his overall play was vintage Keith Appling.
Michigan State's performance was far from perfect.
Foul trouble limited Adreian Payne to 19 minutes and five points - his second-fewest since returning from a seven-game hiatus due to a foot injury. But if MSU has learned anything this adversity-riddled season, it's been how to get along without, and it should mean Payne will be extra-fresh for the Badgers.
"Just to see us happy again as a team and playing good as a team - we got Keith coming back and different guys rotating in - was definitely well-needed," said Dawson, who made 8-of-12 shots from the floor.
Well-needed as much as coach Tom Izzo has been saying Dawson's motor is critical to Spartan success when it's revving at a high pace. Michigan State improved to 19-3 this season when Dawson has played and 15-2 when he starts.
"It's kind of strange," Izzo said. "I told him, God may have taken his hand away, but he gave him a jump shot. He's actually been shooting the ball so much better. It kind of reminds me of my golf game when you come back and you're just concentrating and you do it real well early. I think he's concentrating more on the form of his shot, and it's helped him.
"But don't kid yourself, the difference in Branden was his energy and his defense, and then he made things happen on the break. He did hit a couple nice shots, but I think he felt better about himself because he did other things better. He was a big key. He was switching, talking, covering up for people. I think that was one of the best games Branden has played here."
Michigan State held dominating advantages in: points in the paint, 32-20; points off turnovers, 21-9; second-chance points, 20-5; fast-break points, 17-5; and bench scoring, 20-5.
"It was just good to be out there having fun," echoed shooting guard Gary Harris, who had 13 points and seven rebounds. "We put an emphasis in practice this week on improving our defense and our communication, and I felt like we played with a lot of energy on defense and that carried over to the offensive end.
"We were just playing how we were earlier in the season, which was good for us."
Izzo has become expert over the years at distinguishing fool's gold from the real thing, so even though the Spartans shined against Northwestern, which they handled by 14, 15 and 16 points this season, he wants to see more.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Izzo said. "We are going to be a work-in-progress with every game we play. We still have our moments. I thought we had a couple crazy turnovers, but we're doing a little bit better job of playing the kind of defense we want.
"But, it's one game. We've played a couple good games now, one average game and one poor game in the four that we've had everybody back. Are we making progress? Yeah we are, but (today) will be a good test to see where we are."
Appling's wrist injury and subsequent recovery has been one of the most closely-watched, heavily scrutinized and overly analyzed events in recent program memory.
Not without good reason. It's a time-honored custom that guard-play makes the most profound difference come tournament time.
"I think the biggest key tonight was Keith," Izzo said. "You're quarterback's got to play well and I thought he pushed (the ball) better. You could still see though where he used to make those moves and just go around the guy and get it up. He just hasn't done it in so long he's not as comfortable, but he did push it and he did guard very well.
"That's the old Keith."
Appling's mood was considerably brighter than after recent games.
"I feel like we just finally had so much time together to practice and get that rhythm back that we had earlier in the season," he said. "It didn't really surprise me how well we came out and played. The main thing is that we continue to do this and play well throughout the tournament, so we continue to survive and advance."
Michigan State and Wisconsin have been engaged in one of the more unlikely, but most compelling and fiercely fought, Big Ten rivalries of this century, and Izzo expects more of the same.
"Yeah, it's going to be an old-fashioned fistfight," Izzo said. "That's what Wisconsin-Michigan State has been like. When you look back at this incredible matchup that it's been for 10 years, really, we've won our share and they sure did win their share.
"It's kind of become where we're both still pretty good defensively, but we both are relying on the 3-point shot a little more. I don't see that happening (today). I think it's going to be an old-fashioned game and it should be fun."
Well-needed, at that.