March 17, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
INDIANAPOLIS - They got their confetti.
They got their championship hats.
They got their joy.
Just like football..., three months after football did it..., just like basketball in 2012 - Michigan State left Indianapolis with another Big Ten trophy, again awarded by conference commissioner Jim Delany, and as sweet as it can be because it came at the expense of regular season champ and archrival Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final, 69-55.
Inspired by the celebration that followed the football team's win against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, the basketball team reprised that one-of-a-kind feeling only a champion can enjoy, made all the better by snapping a three-game losing streak to the Wolverines Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"The first couple shots, I didn't know what was going on," senior power forward Adreian Payne said of the fireworks blast that preceded the confetti storm. "But it was a great moment. I think it was great that we were able to play Michigan again just for B.J. because that's our rival and he didn't get to play them the last two times we played because he was hurt."
"B.J.," otherwise known as Branden Dawson, led the Spartans with a sensational all-around performance that featured 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting from the floor, six rebounds and disruptive defensive play that earned him tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. He was joined on the All-Tournament Team by Payne, who had 18 points and nine rebounds against the Wolverines and Spartan guard Gary Harris, who pitched in 15 points.
And now the Spartans are off to Spokane, Wash., as the No. 4 seed in the NCAA
Tournament's East Region.
Despite defeating a pair of freshly minted NCAA No. 2 seeds - Wisconsin in the West and U-M in the Midwest - in the Big Tournament, MSU's seed didn't improve from where it was projected heading into the weekend.
However, head coach Tom Izzo wasn't complaining after the Spartans earned a measure of redemption from a regular season that was disrupted by an unprecedented number of missed practices and games due to injury and illness.
Winning the Big Ten Tournament "was important in a lot of ways," he said. "(The Wolverines) have taken our lunch the last couple games. That's one reason. But I came into this weekend thinking we've got to play three games, and we did, and it's an added bonus when you get to play your rival.
"And, we played two No. 2 seed teams, and both of them were vying for No. 1 seeds, and rightfully so. I think they both deserved what they got and it kind of gives us a barometer of where we are a little bit or where we can be. I thought it was a great way for us to get some of our mojo and confidence back against two quality teams, and that's what makes it special."
Along with, Izzo noted, opening the NCAA Tournament against No. 13 seed Delaware near the retirement home of his predecessor and mentor at MSU, Jud Heathcote, on Thursday. If Michigan State wins, it will face the winner of the game between No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 12 Harvard, which is led by former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, on Saturday.
Izzo credited his staff and the scout team for the Spartans' strong performance. Plans for Friday's quarterfinal had to be scrapped when Northwestern upset Iowa and after beating the Wildcats, it was on to Wisconsin, a team with a unique system MSU faced just once during the regular season, less than 24 hours later in the semis. Michigan, and Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas, presented MSU with a whole new set of preparation challenges.
"When you go through walk-throughs for us in the hotel and you've got the court out on the (ballroom) floor, you really get a feel whether a team is there to go through the motions, or whether a team is there with a purpose," Izzo said. "There was so much energy in there, it was there for a purpose.
"Their confidence is growing."
No one personified the explosive combination of energy and confidence more than Dawson, who played like a man possessed during nearly every one of his 78 tournament minutes. It's as if he was making up for the nine games he lost after breaking his hand when he slammed it on a table during a film session.
Dawson served notice to the Wolverines in the opening minutes of the second half, which be began with Michigan State holding a 38-29 lead.
His offensive rebound and lob to Payne for a dunk put MSU ahead, 42-29. Dawson's defensive rebound on the other end led to his driving layup for a 15-point lead. A subsequent scramble in Michigan's end began with senior point guard Keith Appling's steal and culminated with Travis Trice diving to the floor and head-manning the loose ball to Dawson, who threw the ball through the hoop with a highlight-show -worthy windmill dunk for a 46-29 advantage.
The Wolverines finally broke up the 8-0 run, but Dawson stabbed their vision of beginning a comeback with a jump shot. Together, Dawson and Payne combined for the Spartans' first 18 points of the second half. Meantime, the Spartans were in the process of holding Stauskas to just four points in the second half - he finished with 17 - and maintaining a double-digit lead for the entire final 20 minutes.
"With the mistake I made and me sitting out, it made me realize a lot just watching my teammates out there playing," Dawson said. "Everything happened for a reason and I'm glad I got to be a part of this Big Ten Championship.
"Going through adversity with injuries and this and that, we just never gave up. When Michigan won the Big Ten outright, we just told one another we just have to win the Big Ten Tournament Championship. We just kept fighting and just kept pushing one another."
Appling's remarkable rebirth at the point guard position wasn't necessarily reflected in his seven points, three assists and two steals against U-M, but it was in the poise and control that was conspicuous by their absence when he was dealing with a wrist injury.
Leading the Spartans to their fourth conference tournament title since 1999 satisfied just one of MSU's goals while exorcising a demon, in the form of Michigan, which has caused him so much heartache the last two seasons.
"For us to come from where we came from and play those guys again, especially here in the tournament championship, was just a great opportunity and we just wanted to take advantage of it," Appling said. "I try to let the past be the past, but our whole coaching staff continued to tell us throughout the course of the season that we would eventually see those guys again. It happened and we made the most of it.
"I don't think we made a statement today; I feel like we made a statement the whole weekend. We beat some of the better teams in the country and I feel like we kind of showed everybody we can play with the best teams in the country when we're healthy."
Time is running out for Appling and Payne to extend MSU's streak of sending every four-year player under Izzo to the Final Four, but Appling said the next objective is to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and advance to the regionals in New York.
"I try not to really think about that because I want to focus on one goal at a time," Appling said. "This weekend was to win the Big Ten Tournament championship. Now that we're headed to the (NCAA) Tournament we have to start working toward the next goal.
"We've just got to control the things we can control, which is playing hard every night and staying together."
Izzo's immediate concern is to get the Spartans to resemble some of his most successful teams even more than they did in Indianapolis.
"We just had no idea of which way we were going," he said of MSU's mind-set in in the final third of the regular season. "We weren't a great defensive team, we weren't a great rebounding team. We were actually a better 3-point shooting team. You can't ever lose your identity, and I thought we did a little bit, understandably so.
"I think we defended better and right away our rebounding went up, for the most part, because of our defense. Our No. 1 goal right now is to stay away from foul trouble because when we have everybody in there, we're a lot better."
After what MSU has been through, the one thing Izzo isn't worried about is handling adversity in the NCAA Tournament because the Spartans appear to be as prepared for every contingency as a team can be.
"They've been through the time when everybody was kissing their tail and they've been through the time when everybody was kicking it," said Izzo, who seemed to let out a big sigh of relief during the trophy ceremony. "It was one of those times when emotionally I just felt spent.
"It's been difficult, but the one thing I stood by all the time was if this team gets healthy, and back in sync, I still thought we could be as good as anybody. I guess that part was at least validated in our league (tournament) and now we'll see what it does as we move on."
The Spartans still aren't as smooth and polished as they need to be to make a deep run in the national tourney, according to Izzo, but he feels capable of reaching that end thanks to his recent on-the-job training.
"It was the most difficult year of my whole career because you fight making excuses, you fight the realization, you fight players being down about it," he said. "There was a lot more talking, you know. I got a minor in psychology, a major in medicine and a two-year degree in coaching this year."