March 20, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
SPOKANE, Wash. - The last thing Adreian Payne did during Michigan State's public practice at Spokane Arena Wednesday was to shoot baseline jumpers with scout-team member Colby Wollenman's hand stretched out in front of his face.
The last of Payne's 10 field goals against Delaware in MSU's 93-78 NCAA tournament-opening victory came from the very same spot left of the basket over the outstretched hand of Blue Hens center Carl Baptiste.
History cares about such details and Payne's performance 24 hours later was historic in every sense of the word.
He would tack on two more free throws before subbing out with 1:52 remaining to finish with a career-high 41 points, breaking the Michigan State NCAA Tournament scoring record set by Greg Kelser, with 34 against Notre Dame en route to the 1979 National Championship.
Payne's 17 free throws, on as many attempts, broke Earvin "Magic" Johnson's school NCAA Tournament mark of 14 against LSU in '79, and Payne and Maurice Ager, who went 10-for-10 versus North Carolina in 2005, are the only Spartans to be perfect from the line with at least 10 attempts in the tournament.
And MSU, which moves on to play Harvard on Saturday in the Round of 32, needed Payne's best game ever to shake off a clingy Delaware team that was still within striking distance from 10 points back with 2:35 to go.
For this performance alone, Payne's name will be enshrined with Spartan greats for years to come and he still has potentially five more games remaining in his career, which coach Tom Izzo was convinced had come to an end with an eye on the NBA a year ago.
"I would say it's leaving a legacy," Payne answered when asked what such milestones mean to a player.
"I talked to coach about that and the other day I sent him a text. You know, we're just trying to continue to win games. We're here to win the weekend and that's the main goal."
Payne began Michigan State's first 40-point game since Shawn Respert scorched Indiana for 40 in 1995, the way it ended, with a pair of free throws that came after he executed the game plan by going down low and drawing a foul.
He then showed why he's the nation's most inimitable player, at 6-foot-10, during a virtuoso stretch later in the first half.
It began with a defensive rebound, an outlet pass, and an assist from point guard Keith Appling on Payne's first 3-point basket to finish a fast break. The Spartans' next possession also ended on Payne's pull-up triple in transition. Three more points came in a conventional manner when Payne set up in the post, scored on a short jumper, drew a foul and made the free throw. He made it 12 straight points, on a 3-pointer from the top of the key, to give MSU a 36-18 lead with 6:34 left before halftime.
"No, I didn't really feel like I was going to have a game like this," said Payne, notwithstanding his prep work with Wollenman. "I just came out trying to play to win. Coach said he was going to come to me early and that's what he did and my teammates did a great job at getting me the ball, so I could get baskets in easy ways.
"When you're scoring like that and your game's coming so easy to you, and you make a lot of shots, it feels like you're in a rhythm. It feels like you can't be stopped."
With 23 points, on the strength of his 4-for-4 shooting from behind the arc and 7-for-7 efficiency from the foul line, Payne was the high-point man of the tournament at that stage by halftime.
Payne missed his only other 3-point try in the second half or he would have had a career-high in that department as well, and finished with eight rebounds.
There's a quality of unpredictability about Payne who scored 33 points in the win at Texas on Dec. 21 but will produce a single-digit effort every once in a while, as he did with five points in the Big Ten Tournament opener against Northwestern after getting in foul trouble.
"Honestly, this is not the first time seeing Adreian having an impact on a game like this," said teammate Branden Dawson. "It goes back from the Texas game. It all starts with our guards. They find him in rhythm and he just made shots. We're not surprised at his performance because as a senior you should come out and play like this and Adreian just showed the world that he's not ready to go home."
A matchup nightmare for opposing teams, there's nobody else like him in the tournament, and possibly all of college basketball.
"He's just a special player," said Delaware coach Monte Ross. "He showed that today. You just don't bank on him going 4-for-4 from three in the first half, and that's what really set the tone for them. I would have to say this cautiously, he sort of cooled off a little bit in the second half. We got him to miss a couple jump shots.
"But 41 is 41. He was a load in there. He was probably the best big man that I've faced in 21 years of college basketball. He has a myriad of skills where he can step away and make threes and he's a load down there on the block. He goes to the foul line and goes 17-for-17. Someone asked me earlier in the week where are the holes? You look at his game there were no holes."
And to think, Payne appeared to be an early departee after the Spartans lost to Duke in last season's Sweet 16. If not for a heart-to-heart talk with his former Dayton Jefferson Township High School coaches, Payne would likely be playing for an NBA team instead of fricasseeing the Blue Hens. The wisdom of that decision was questioned when he sat out seven games with a sprained foot in January and February, but there's no question in Izzo's mind that Payne's chances of succeeding as a pro have greatly increased. "He made the right decision to stay," Izzo said. "Yes, he made the right decision for me and everybody can write that, but he made the right decision for him. He's a much better player. He's a much more cerebral player; he's a much stronger player.
"He's starting to marry the inside-outside game together, and if he does that on a consistent basis, I see him as one of the best 4 men (power forwards) in the whole country. I'm sure he's moving up (in NBA draft projections), but no matter if he does or doesn't, he's better ready for that next level now than he was a year ago."
But first, Payne has a chance to add to his legacy, which could go celestial.
"Adreian is not a guy that sends long texts," Izzo said. "He just talked about the things he learned and that he wanted to finish strong and it was kind of a deep text for him about how he's going to just try to stay focused and do whatever I need him to do.
"Was he in another zone? Yes, that wasn't even the ozone. He was in Pluto and beyond, I mean, he was way out there."