March 21, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
PHOENIX - Brandan Kearney's greatest contribution to the Michigan State basketball team so far may be the way he helped push the Spartans a little further up the learning curve during the postseason.
For a team still in the process of uncovering unknowns and discovering hidden facts about itself because of youth and inexperience, Kearney's low point became a teaching point at the most opportune time: When there are still games to be won in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans defeated St. Louis last Sunday in Columbus to advance to the Sweet 16 despite Kearney's freshman mistakes during a critical stretch. It's highly unlikely any of the MSU players will repeat the same type of errors Thursday night against Louisville, and they certainly won't duplicate the largely misunderstood over-the-top reaction Kearney had upon returning to the bench.
When Kearney saw a video replay of his histrionics in Nationwide Arena, "I was definitely embarrassed," he said during Wednesday's media session at US Airways Center.
A man far wiser in the ways of life and basketball, retired Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, often said the game eventually "makes fools of us all."
Kearney's tipping point came during the final eight minutes of play against the Billikens. After amassing what appeared to be a safe 11-point lead, the Spartans suddenly found themselves in the position of holding back an avalanche.
Eleven seconds after coach Tom Izzo inserted Kearney into the game for defensive purposes, he committed a foul. St. Louis scored a 3-point basket on the ensuing possession, and suddenly, MSU's advantage was down to five points.
With 4:04 to play, Kearney bit big-time on a pump fake by Billiken guard Jordair Jett. Kearney left his feet and was called for a foul when he made contact on the way down. After missing the first free throw, Jett made the second and Michigan State's lead was down to two. Izzo sent fellow freshman Travis Trice in to replace Kearney, who was beyond being visibly upset after brief encounter with Izzo.
Kearny appeared to be an inconsolable bundle of anger and anguish after taking his seat. First he pulled his jersey up over his face, and then he covered his head with a towel. Observers could only speculate what was going on with Kearney. Did Izzo utter something unspeakably harsh in his direction? Did Kearney say something back he immediately regretted? Did he aggravate some painful injury no one knew about?
It was none of that, Kearney explained.
"I wasn't playing well and thought I'd bounce back in the second half," he said. "Then I picked up those two fouls and momentum was swinging their way. It just pretty much went south from there. That call could have gone either way, but it was just one thing after another that wasn't going right for me. I got real frustrated when I came to the bench.
"I got real emotional because I thought we were going to lose. I just told (Izzo) it was all on me. It kind of looked like I was being selfish with my yelling and reacting the way I did, but I was really just saying it was all my fault."
It was a crushing burden for a player who at the beginning of the season was being considered for a redshirt. Although his role slowly increased - and he had meaningful contributions at Gonzaga, against Iowa and at Michigan - he was thrust into the primary playing group when Branden Dawson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the final Big Ten game.
"Some people thought he was mad at his teammates, but anybody who knows Brandan knows that's not the case," Trice said. "He was more mad at himself for what he did in the game and thought he let us down."
Teammates on the bench rallied around Kearney with embraces and words of encouragement, and his worst fears were never realized because the Spartans pulled out a 65-61 victory.
"I think he was just really frustrated, as anybody would be, for not doing his job," said red-shirt freshman guard Russell Byrd. "He was really feeling the pressure because he didn't want to let DayDay (Draymond Green), Austin (Thornton) and the all the seniors down.
"I completely understood it, but I told him, `I know what you're feeling and exactly where you're at, but you've got to realize that the coaches and the media are going to see it as being selfish because it looks like you're only concerned about yourself.' He really was concerned about the team, but perception is usually reality and I was just trying to get his head up and have him stay engaged and be with us, and we can worry about his personal issues afterward."
Kearney was back to normal in about five minutes.
"I had to regroup," Kearney said. "At first, in that moment, I wasn't really thinking right, but once I was back on solid ground, I was back to cheering my team on and knew we would put it together and win the game. It was definitely a relief because I would have had to live with being knocked out of the tournament my freshman year when we had a big chance to win it all.
"I thought I would have been the one everyone was going to blame. I've always been rough on myself, but I'm glad to have that off my chest."
The first lesson Kearney took from this episode was to maintain his composure even in times of personal strife.
"It was definitely a learning experience, knowing all the cameras were watching me," he said. "I can't have that breakdown anymore."
However, if the Spartans realize that one lapse or error in judgment can make the difference between winning and losing, Izzo will thank Kearney for presenting a classic case of turning a negative into a positive.
No matter how good a freshman may be, he typically doesn't know what he doesn't know. The stakes will get even higher against the Cardinals and their full-court pressing defense. It will be up to MSU's ball-handlers, such as sophomore point guard Keith Appling, Trice and Kearney, to navigate the Louisville minefield.
While Kearney is averaging 9.8 minutes per game for the season, he's at 15.6 in five postseason games, including the Big Ten Tournament.
"A lot will be on Trice," Izzo said. "And yet, him and Kearney, who are going to be a part of it, struggled a little bit last week. I think part of is the first time on the big stage. Hopefully, they learned from that.
"We had a couple of meetings about it. This is what's cool about college, too. There is a learning curve. They come in with some of the great bodies and some with high rankings, but you better learn how to take the steps up the ladder that you have to take to get yourself to Final Fours, and this is another big step."
The best part about it, Trice said, is that such lessons are usually only learned in defeat.
"I'd much rather learn a lesson and win than learn one and lose," he said. "It just shows you that every possession is crucial, and you've got to try to eliminate as many mistakes as you can, and you have to close out the game."