March 16, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - The appetite for winning a championship was whetted three months and nine days earlier in a stadium located just four blocks to the southeast away.
The Michigan State basketball team, by all accounts laden with enough experienced talent to achieve all of its goals but questionable in the leadership department, accompanied coach Tom Izzo to Lucas Oil Stadium for a lesson in chemistry, competitive drive, relentless determination and hopefully, unrestrained joy.
That night in December, MSU's basketball players watched from front-row seats as their Spartan football brethren conquered every adverse situation thrown their way to dismantle No. 2 Ohio State, 34-24, in the Big Ten Championship Game. The victory sent Michigan State to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years and the celebration that followed on the field was one for the ages.
Today, the MSU basketball team will get the chance to "complete the circle," as Spartan football coach Mark Dantonio might say, in the Big Ten Tournament title game against Michigan at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Izzo's basketball team hasn't experienced anything like the drought the football did between trips to Pasadena, but the stakes have no less of a high-risk, high-reward feel.
The Spartans will meet their archrival in the tournament for the first time since its inception in 1998, and the Wolverines swept both meetings in East Lansing and Ann Arbor en route to the regular-season championship that had been all but promised to MSU. Furthermore, U-M owns a three-game winning streak and victories in six of the last eight games against the Spartans.
After Michigan State advanced to the tourney final by downing Wisconsin, 83-75, in Saturday's semifinal, senior Adreian Payne looked back not at how the football team - which, by the way, manhandled the Wolverines 29-6 during the regular season - won, but at how they basked in the moment afterward.
"Seeing them out there celebrating, and confetti falling, and everybody happy, running around with roses in their mouths, parents so happy and smiling, it was just a great way to go out," Payne said. "Now we're trying to finish it off by winning one."
The irony of the situation might have been sharper had the basketball team not been preoccupied with a rash of disorienting injuries that make the football championship game seem like it took place so long ago. Izzo smiled when reminded of his previous trip to Indianapolis, nonetheless.
"I like being in championship environments, I really do," Izzo said. "I went to the Super Bowl just to see what it's like. And when it's closer to home, like our football team and the great job Mark Dantonio did, I suggested it to the players two weeks before, and then we go get beat by North Carolina which kind of dampened it. "But it didn't really dampen it because the mission was to learn how to win a championship. I thought the most significant part of the night was when I said, Let's get out of here, it's midnight, we'll get home at 4 or 5 in the morning...
"They all said, `Coach, we have to stay for the ceremony, man.' It was so much fun to watch the quiet guys I have, because some are, waving flags and high-fiving their comrades out there, and just the excitement they had to see them win.
"And we left at 7 in the morning."
Michigan State persevered through the adversity on the court with the same next-man-up attitude espoused by their football counterparts.
The team that looked nowhere near tournament ready, or inclined to ever get there, while losing four of its last six regular-season games, rounded back into form good enough to put the No. 2 seed Badgers in a 21-point hole with 5:39 remaining in the first half.
Despite being limited by foul trouble for the second-straight game, Payne still scored a team-high 18 points in 17 minutes. Five teammates joined him in double figures. Branden Dawson had his second strong performance in a row with 14 points and seven rebounds, Gary Harris had 12 points and Travis Trice chipped in 11 with four assists and no turnovers.
Denzel Valentine scored 11 of his 12 points in the first half, with 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range, to build an advantage Wisconsin couldn't overcome.
Keith Appling, meantime, continued to reassert his authority with 10 points, six assists and just one turnover.
When the Badgers started their comeback bid by outscoring MSU 13-6 in the opening minutes of the second half, it was Appling who kept them at bay with seven points on back-to-back 17-foot jumpers from the same spot above the left elbow and a drive for a three-point play sandwiched around a Dawson putback. The Spartans then battled to maintain their cushion over the final 13:52.
"Wisconsin is a great team, they fought hard and never gave up," Dawson said. "Against Michigan, we can't come out and get selfish. We have to play solid as a team and play together."
A broken hand prevented Dawson from facing the Wolverines in the first two meetings.
"I'm very excited just to be given the chance to play against these guys," he said. "Sitting out and watching those two games, I felt like I could have helped out a lot."
The Spartans avenged 60-58 loss against the Badgers in Madison with both Dawson and Appling still on the mend and out of the lineup. Payne was missing in the 80-75 home loss to Michigan and Dawson was still out when MSU fell at U-M, 79-70.
Izzo will have a full complement of Spartans for the 174th game against the Wolverines, and first on a neutral court, though he'll take any help Dantonio can send his way. "Unless I can borrow that linebacker (Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth) to jump over the pile, I don't know if there's any significance in the game, but I see significance in that was the way we started the season out, learning how to win a championship from our football buddies, and now we get a chance to win our own in the Big Ten," Izzo said. "That's a good set of events.
"Mark Dantonio has often talked that I kind of showed him the way early on how to win championships, and this year he showed me the way."
Trice wants the Spartans to live it for themselves, just like football.
"My freshman year, we won the Big Ten Tournament, but it's kind of surreal looking back on it because as a freshman you don't really know," he said. "It becomes like an expectation every year, and after not winning the next year and losing in (the semifinal), it kind of hit home, especially after seeing the football team play and how they reacted after winning.
"During the game, we're going to be more focused on doing what we've got to do, and then, afterward that's something we would relate back on and say, hey, we did it too, and this is hopefully a great moment for both of us."