March 27, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It's not as though Michigan State was terrible at rebounding and defending this season.
The Spartans were a respectable third in the Big Ten in both departments heading into the NCAA Tournament and fourth in field-goal percentage defense.
However, for the most part they simply weren't passing the eye test, especially given the athletic ability coach Tom Izzo could put on the floor at all five positions. That was disconcerting because even when shots aren't falling, Izzo has said countless times, players can always defend and win the rebound battle if they put their minds to it and give great effort.
Then, it was as though someone flipped the proverbial switch.
Michigan State looked like vintage MSU while outrebounding Valparaiso 49-23 and holding the Crusaders to under 45 points for the first 38 minutes of the tournament opener, and outrebounding Memphis 49-29, and holding the Tigers to their lowest point total (48) of the season. Memphis also converted just 29.7 percent of its field goal attempts, a season low.
So with a battle cry of "Kill `em on the glass!" and recommitment to the way their forefathers played D, the Spartans are taking an old-school approach into Friday night's Sweet 16 game against Duke in Indianapolis.
"We know we can play some pretty good defense but we just haven't come to play that kind of defense every day," said senior center Derrick Nix, who had a career-high 15 rebounds against Valpo. "It was surprising how we rebounded the ball that (Memphis) game against an athletic team, but it's something we can just keep getting better at.
"Rebounding is definitely the key to advancing. It's what we base our program on."
Junior power forward Adreian Payne set the defensive bar a little higher when he established a career high with five blocked shots against Memphis, a total that also set a single-game Spartan record in an NCAA Tournament contest.
Assuming the opportunity to move to within one win of making it to the Final Four brings out the best in both teams, it will be a case of strength against strength. The Blue Devils lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring (77.8 points per game) and are second in shooting percentage (47.7), but eighth in rebounding. And while MSU leads the Big Ten in steals, Duke is first in the ACC in turnover margin.
"They are usually a team that's very stingy defensively," Izzo said. "And yet, they always have been a great rebounding team, and this year, I wouldn't say they are great, but I would say they are pretty solid.
"So when you look at their stats, even defensively, they are not quite Duke ish but ours have not been quite Michigan State ish either, in rebounding and in defense and field goal percentage."
It's not as if the Spartans aren't as capable as they've been in the past. After all, they're genetically programmed to rebound and defend, or Izzo wouldn't have recruited them.
"Coach always says defense wins championships and we feel that if we pick up our defense and turn those stops into easy baskets on the offensive end, we have a great opportunity to win games," said junior point guard Keith Appling. "We showed everybody how good it can be in the Michigan game."
Michigan State throttled No. 4 U-M, 75-52, in the Breslin Center on Feb. 12. The Spartans held a 41-30 rebounding edge and held the Wolverines to 37.9 percent shooting. It was a sign of what the Spartans were capable of doing, but hardly a portent of things to come as they suffered from defensive lapses at inopportune times in subsequent games.
"The main thing for us is staying focused, and if we do that, things usually go well for us," Appling said.
Appling's right (shooting) shoulder, which he re-injured against Memphis, won't be an issue against Duke, he said. He's always been a top-notch on-ball defender, but Payne "has grown as much as any player I've had since (Morris) Peterson" on and off the court, Izzo said.
Payne has expanded his repertoire to the point he's now comfortable defending on the perimeter, where he'll likely be matched up at times with 6-foot-11 Blue Devil sharpshooter Ryan Kelly.
"I've watched a lot of film of him already and I've got him in the back of my head," Payne said earlier in the week. "I'm thinking about him right now. He can shoot the ball very well, pick-and-pop, and put the ball on the floor. It's just a matter of me locking in and being help-defender, contesting every shot and being there on the catch.
"I think we're going to have to be smart and rebound the ball. I think we can definitely be a team that plays defense and rebounds at a high rate because we have been showing spurts of it, and I think we're getting better at having longer spurts of doing that. If we continue to get better, you'll see it."
The key to it all may be sophomore forward Branden Dawson, who is the closer to the form he showed before injuring his knee a year ago than at any point this season. He's still not 100 percent, but when he's active with a high rate of energy on both ends of the floor he affects the game in ways that don't show up in the box score.
"Dawson was in there 10 times more," Izzo said. "He didn't necessarily get 10 times the rebounds and he was just way more active and that was one thing. Dawson creates some things just by going.
"So not to put a lot of pressure on Branden, but probably what I'm going to do all week is put a lot of pressure on Branden, because maybe it's time. If there's one guy I'm going to challenge as much as anyone, it's going to be Branden Dawson because I think he has the most room to grow, and I don't think anybody has seen the kid that I recruited yet.
"Maybe it's time to take the gloves off."
Dawson, who had seven points and six rebounds against Valparaiso and one point and six boards versus Memphis, has a newfound zest for the game.
"I definitely gained confidence from both games and going into this weekend, especially playing Duke, I'm ready," Dawson said. "We haven't been a team that has rebounded or defended as well as some of Coach's previous teams, but there's no reason we can't be.
"Like in the last game, a lot of people were saying D.J. Stephens was a high-flyer, but I don't think he had a dunk in that game against Adreian Payne, and he had about eight in one game we watched on film. We have horses, too. Coach always tells us we don't even know how good we are and it's going to come down to each of us holding each other to a higher standard.
"If we turn ourselves into a great rebounding and defensive team, we can go far in this tournament."