March 21, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - So that's what Michigan State looks like when it isn't constricted by a Big Ten straitjacket.
Derrick Nix, who went 20 consecutive games since his last 20-point game, recorded the second of his career with a 23-point effort that paced the Spartans to a misleadingly close 65-54 victory over Valparaiso in their NCAA Tournament opener at The Palace. Nix also had a career-high 15 rebounds as MSU raked out 49 boards.
With an opponent that isn't calling out Michigan State's plays before point guard Keith Appling can relay them to his teammates, the Spartans broke free with a 41-14 blitz that began with 11:01 left in the first half and ended with 13:51 remaining in the second.
But before the Spartans let up on the gas pedal, sophomore forward Branden Dawson snapped them out of a sluggish start with his most sustained energized play since before he injured his knee 12 months earlier.
Nix was a maestro conducting an inside-outside concert that made the Crusaders pay for double-teaming him in the low post and the rest of the Spartans had room to maneuver while building a 27-point lead.
"It meant a lot for Derrick to have the game that he did," Dawson said. "We kind of fed off him and he motivated us. I look at him as a big brother. He's the only senior and he's a leader, so for him to be playing like that uplifts our team."
That first breath of freedom can have a dizzying effect on anyone, which may explain why MSU was still deadlocked with Valpo, 8-8, nearly nine minutes into the game.
"I guess I was real pleased with about 33, 34 minutes of that game," said head coach Tom Izzo. "The first couple were a little sluggish and the last five were a little disgusting, to be honest with you. Keith ran it, we got the ball inside, and B.J. (Dawson) did a good job of slashing and working on the back side of that zone.
"What they did well, we guarded, and what we do well, they struggled with."
Izzo had virtually zero opportunities to make such an assessment while the Spartans were in the process of scratching and clawing their way to a 13-5 conference record, and he would have never dreamed of making the following statement after playing Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois or Iowa.
"I told them this morning, `On paper we're better than Valpo,' " Izzo said. "We know that, but upsets happen in two ways - either guys don't come ready to play because they're thinking they're better, or the 3-point shot.
"I thought Valpo could give us both, and at least we came ready to play."
And for one game, at least, the Spartans weren't expending most of their energy just trying to avoid being suffocated.
Appling chipped in 15 points for his fifth-straight game in double figures. Freshman guard Gary Harris broke the ice for MSU with his first of two 3-pointers and he bounced back from a season-low five-point effort against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament by scoring 10. He also had four assists, one shy of his career-high, for only the third time this season.
It was a welcome respite to play a team that didn't know what flavor gum Harris chews.
"They still knew some of our plays but definitely not to the extent as some Big Ten teams," Harris said. "It was just a relief to finally play somebody else instead of beating up on each other (in the league) all the time."
Dawson had a strong stat line with seven points, six rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. He also fulfilled his pregame commitment to play with some of the abandon he did before getting hurt.
"It was definitely different not playing against a Big Ten team," Dawson said. "But it was good for us, too, because we could run everything we wanted to."
The Spartans know their liberation is only temporary and could end as soon as Saturday when they play Memphis for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. And if they move on, the competition will only get tougher.
"It's going to get harder each game, so we can't be satisfied with this one," Harris said. "We have to look at our mistakes and get ready for the next game."
Memphis scraped by St. Mary's, 54-52, in its opener, but the memory of trailing the Tigers, 50-20, at halftime of a 92-74 Sweet-16 blowout in 2008 is still fresh in Izzo's mind. Memphis is a mid-major by virtue of conference perception only.
"I just can't take my foot off the accelerator right now because in one-and-done time, they have to understand that mistakes are OK, but that's why you play 30 (regular-season) games, so you have less of them when you get here," Izzo said. "If you have many here, you don't play any more."
The Crusaders, to their credit, beat MSU 12-7 in the final five minutes, so Izzo and his staff will have no shortage of issues to address heading into, and during, the next game. And with the Spartans' leadership still below par, and likely to stay that way for the remainder of the postseason, he isn't about to stand pat while waiting for it to emerge.
"When you don't have a player-coached team, and it's been widely publicized (we don't) - they're doing a better job but it's not the strength of this team - it's harder to stay focused," Izzo said. "I just decided after watching some games and listening to some coaches' interviews that if there's anybody that's gotten a little soft, it's been me.
"So I'm not going to tolerate anything but their best. You know what? If people don't like the way I do it, I really don't care anymore. I'm getting back to being a little more old-schoolish. I told them, if you don't want to play 40 minutes, you're going to have a problem."
The day before the game, Nix put a new twist on leadership when he said the Spartans expect Izzo to extract as much perfection he can get out of them by any means possible, especially if it keeps them out of that straitjacket for the foreseeable future.
"It's definitely going to get tighter again," Harris said.