Grinz On Green: Spartans Still Growing
Even in game 34, a young Spartan squad is still learning valuable lessons.
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
TULSA, Okla. -- Twenty-four hours earlier, Michigan State was a much different team.
The Spartans were going through their final on-court preparations and still in the process of fine-tuning their strategy for Miami, their first-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
Although MSU had traveled the world to play 33 games, plus two exhibitions, endured dozens of practice sessions and been reconfigured countless times by Coach Tom Izzo and his staff, it was still an unknown entity.
How the Spartans, with four freshmen poised to make their national tourney debuts, would perform was anybody's guess -- and not a very educated one at that.
Twenty-four hours later, Michigan State was going through its final on-court preparations and in the process of fine-tuning its game plan for top-seeded Kansas in Sunday's second-round, Midwest Regional game at the BOK Center.
In between, something transformative took place thanks not only to the way the No. 9 Spartans overcame a horrific, turnover-plagued start against the Hurricanes, but how they throttled their Atlantic Coast Conference foe boasting the impressive resume.
If knowledge is power, Michigan State will have a powerful new arrow in its quiver against the Jayhawks.
"It was just exciting to be out there on the court in my first NCAA Tournament as a freshman, and to get a win in the first round..., it's just a blessing to be in this position to be able to move on and play again," said shooting guard Joshua Langford. "Wherever the chips may fall, I'm just going to go out there and give it my all and do my job."
Langford emerged even further from his shell by scoring nine of his 13 points early in the second half to keep momentum swung in MSU's direction along the way to a 78-58 victory.
After weeks of seeing their fragile confidence fluctuate, the tournament brought out the best Langford and the Spartans had to offer.
"I definitely do think there's more to come," Langford said. "You look at all of Coach Iz's teams, they really peak at this time of year and I feel like we're peaking at the right time and everybody's starting to fire on all cylinders. You've seen how good we were throughout different parts of the season, but now I feel like this team is starting to become consistent with what we need to do."
That certainly didn't appear to be the case in those opening minutes against Miami, when MSU looked like a discombobulated mess.
But they passed the test of their character when they refused to panic and unravel, and instead steadily adhered to the principles that allowed them to pull out the win.
In a season where progress has been measured sometimes in minute-long increments, Izzo wasn't being a wise guy when Saturday afternoon he joked, "(different) than we were 24 hours ago? We got 24 hours more experience."
That can seem like a lifetime for a freshman with so much ahead of him and a blink of the eye for a senior trying to extend his career going for as long as possible.
"Well you know what, not only did we get a win in the NCAA Tournament, I think where it's different is we got punched in the face," Izzo said. "That first eight minutes was a knockout punch for most teams, and it's been for some of mine in the past.
"And for all those young guys to kind of rally -, and when I was coming back (to the bench) I looked and there was four of them out there with (sophomore shooting guard Matt) McQuaid -- that was a big step for us. Will that carry over and help us? It will carry over and help us. Will it be enough? I don't know that."
Kansas, regular season Big 12 champions for the 13th straight year, improved to 33-11 with a 100-62 win over UC Davis. The Jayhawks were ranked third in the nation heading into postseason play but will be the fourth team MSU will face that was ranked No. 1 at some point this season.
To which Izzo says, big deal.
Earlier this season the Spartans were in position to beat Kentucky, Baylor, Duke and Arizona, which rose to as high as No. 3, and weren't close to being the team they are today.
And if Michigan State can derive confidence from any source it can, including transitive properties associated with beating the team that beat the team, so be it.
"Our kids know that (Miami) beat Duke, our kids know that they beat North Carolina, our kids know they beat Virginia," said assistant coach Mike Garland. "Our kids know just how good that team is and they understand who they beat and how they beat them.
"We haven't had a win like this, really, the whole year. We beat Wisconsin, but that was a little bit different. This (Miami) team here beat a lot of the top teams in the tournament and there's nothing like confidence. You beat a team like this and there's growth because we couldn't make mistakes like we have in the past. They won't forget what they've done."
As Garland spoke, he caught a glimpse of the No. 8 Badgers celebrating their East Regional upset of No. 1, and defending national champion, Villanova on the television in the Spartans' locker room.
"That confidence piece is a big, big thing," Garland said. "Of course my feeling about our team is different than it was 24 hours ago because they were able to execute the game plan we put together and beat one of the better teams in the country.
"That wasn't a given until they did it. Our kids are young, unsure, and it's on the biggest stage of the whole year. That's why we play anybody, anywhere, anytime. Last night is proof that it pays off. Do we have to come back out (on Sunday) and play even better? Yeah, we do, but we have a better chance of doing it after a win like last night than we would after getting beat because now they're more apt to listen and trust what you're saying."
Having lived through the process since the season opener against Arizona in Hawaii, Miles Bridges, the freshman dynamo, doesn't think the Spartans are as different as night and day.
"I feel like we've matured every single day," he said. "We learned how to win more because in that Miami game, the way we were down, I don't think we would have won it in the past."
And now, they don't see a good reason for why they can't win again, against one of the biggest names in the game. After all, they also have history on their side -- Izzo is 13-1 in the Round of 32.
"One thing about youth," he said, "you win a game and there is an excitement, there's an enthusiasm, there's a new feeling. And that's helped me even when you win a decent amount of games in this tournament, like we have over the years.
"It's just, I won't say it's ho-hum, but it gets to be. There was nothing ho-hum about yesterday for me or for them, and that will, I hope, propel us into playing well against a good team. There should be a few Kansas fans here, I would think, and it'll be a great situation for us."