March 21, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
SPOKANE, Wash. - On Thursday night it was Travis Trice's turn to make his first appearance on the NCAA Tournament postgame press conference podium.
The back-up point guard was Michigan State's No. 2 star, behind Adreian Payne who had a record-setting 41-point performance in the 93-78 win against Delaware, and he had a story that required telling once he conformed to the NCAA's stringent sponsor-friendly protocol.
"I actually messed up," Trice said Friday about his first real miscue since the first half of the game. "I walked out there with a Minute Maid orange juice, and they said `Hey, you can't do that.' I'm like, Oh, my bad. You can't have anything out there besides the Powerade."
In Saturday night's Round-of-32 game against Harvard in Spokane Arena, it could be Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello or Kenny Kaminski getting nabbed by the blue-cup police, in addition to the mainstays like Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson and Payne.
A lot of teams talk about being able to attack opponents in a variety of ways, but MSU is operating on another level, much to the chagrin of Crimson coach Tommy Amaker.
"They're incredibly balanced," said the former Michigan head man. "There aren't any holes in this ball club and that's one of the reasons there are so many people predicting and picking them for a team that could make the journey all the way through and cut down the nets at the end of the tournament.
"They're playing with great rhythm right now, which doesn't bode well for us, as we're the next opponent."
Any team would have to like its chances against the Spartans even when Payne scores their most points in 20 years - Shawn Respert had 43 against Minnesota in 1994 - if it can, as Delaware did, hold Harris to 10 points, 7.2 under his team-leading average, and Appling gets only four.
What the Blue Hens didn't account for, however, is a role player like Trice rising to star status and filling in the gaps. Thirteen of Trice's 19 points came in the second half on 5-for-5 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers. Trice bettered his season-high by two points and missed his personal record by one.
"It's great for our team because now we have so many options to where if somebody's having a bad game we have three or four other options," Trice said. "For another team scouting us, it's got to be rough because how do you plan for which guy is going to go off which night?
"Depending on which guy's hot, it changes the dynamics of how you guard us. If it's A.P. (Payne) you might have to send two guys to double, or if it's Gary or B.J. (Dawson), I don't even know what you really do with those two."
Trice is one of six different players to lead Michigan State in scoring in 35 games. That may not seem like a huge variety, but the distribution is key, especially when the tier of No. 2 scorers is considered.
Harris, who hasn't been the top scorer in seven games dating back to March 1 against Illinois, leads the team with 12 team-highs and is followed by Payne (10), Appling (nine), Dawson (two), and Kaminski and Trice (one each).
But, each Spartan always has to be ready to seize the moment.
Valentine, for example, has been hampered by foul trouble in the postseason, but having scored a career-high 16 twice already this season and 15 on two other occasions, is a reasonable candidate to break out against the Crimson.
"On any given day, somebody else could be hot and we all have the capability of heating up," Valentine said. "It just makes it more fun being out there on the floor knowing any player could heat up at any time.
"It also builds trust because if you're dribbling into the lane and you kick it out, you have the trust that that person is going to make the shot or do something good with the ball because you've seen them do it before."
Valentine's primary role, that of a playmaker, has been stifled recently, but he's taking measures to get back into the flow.
"The foul trouble is frustrating me a little bit and I'm just going to have to make adjustments if we want to advance," he said. "I've got to use my hands less and move my feet a little bit more."
Costello's job has been scaled back since Payne and Dawson have returned to full speed after recovering from injuries. He had four points and five rebounds in nine minutes against Delaware but knows he's a rash of fouls away from being more of an inside scoring threat, as he was with 11 points at Iowa and 10 against Penn State.
"We probably have seven or eight guys who could score 15 or more points any given night," Costello said. "That puts a lot of pressure on other team to guard us, and if somebody's hot we get him the ball because we're not a selfish team. We're pretty close and we root for each other.
"And we're a tough team to guard. You see the other team subbing in a lot trying to figure out how to match up different people because we've got a lot of different lineups to throw in there."
Costello's playing time is determined by how well he performs his assigned tasks, but he'll be ready to expand his role if the opportunity comes his way.
"Most of the time, I come in and just try to do my job of getting rebounds, running the floor and playing defense," he said. "If I'm scoring, I'm scoring, but with everybody back healthy, I just have to do my job."
Michigan State is 18-3 in the second game of an NCAA tournament weekend under coach Tom Izzo because it has developed a proven system for preparing for the next opponent in a compressed period of time and its ability to morph to a variety of styles.
In the 2000 Final Four, for example, the Spartans won a 53-41 tractor pull with Wisconsin and beat Florida, 89-76, in the National-Championship equivalent of the Indianapolis 500.
That quality game through again against Delaware as Trice and Appling, who had five assists, performed a role-reversal.
"We could have kept (Trice) the way he was, the ultimate sixth man, the way he was coming in," Izzo said. "(But) yesterday, we started playing those two guys together. Keith played awfully well, just had a completely different game, but ran our team and Travis made some shots."
Harvard's starting lineup features a pair of 6-foot-7 players in the frontcourt, two 6-5 wings and Siyani Chambers, a hard-nosed 6-0, 170-pound point guard, so the Spartans' powers of adapting will again be put to the test.
Not knowing who'll benefit most from the matchups is like living the plot of a riveting mystery novel.
"I think it keeps us all ready and keeps us all in the game because you never know when it might be your time," Trice said. "But also it helps knowing that you have so many different options that somebody else could be hot that night.
"It kind of just happens. I approach every game the same way and just kind of let the game come to me. It wasn't like I had anything predetermined for Delaware, but once I got on a roll it felt good. It kind of seemed like the ball was finding me and there were a couple times when I was walking into a shot, so I have to give my teammates credit for that."