March 30, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
INDIANAPOLIS - The Derrick Nix era came to an end at Michigan State the only way it could.
It's not that the Spartans were destined to lose to Duke, as they did Friday night, 71-61, in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Had MSU played only slightly better, or the Blue Devils a little worse, Nix might have been only a win on Sunday against Louisville away from closing out his four-year career as it started, with a Final Four team.
But the adversity, anguish and anxiety that weighed down this team almost from the time Branden Dawson blew out his knee in the final game of the 2011-12 regular season, played out right to the end of a brutally agonizing game.
And so, the affable giant who conquered weight issues, questioned authority early in his career and dealt with the embarrassment of a personal indiscretion before putting together a stellar senior season lumbered off the court for the last time, beaten but not bowed.
"Toughness," was the first word that came out of Nix's mouth when asked to characterize the Spartan seasons played under his watch.
"This is probably the toughest team I've ever played on," he continued. "I had the most fun on this team, and even though we didn't capture a championship, I love these guys to death and I know they're all going to be in my corner for the rest of my life.
"This team is a special one. We've just got to move. I think they'll be pretty good next year, top 10, top five I believe, and they'll make a run next year, too."
The Spartans dropped out of the NCAA Tournament with a 27-9 record that will go down as the most battle-scarred of any of the 18 completed under coach Tom Izzo.
Dawson never did return to top form all season and guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris played with recurring shoulder injuries that hampered them for much of the season. Then, as though carrying out a grotesque theme right on cue, one of the last healthy Spartans, power forward Adreian Payne, suffered a painful back injury in the final practice in East Lansing, but which Izzo didn't disclose until after the game.
Michigan State survived its most brutally tough regular season in history, and advanced through the NCAA Tournament's most challenging bracket to its fifth Sweet 16 in six seasons and 11th in the last 16.
It wasn't satisfying, but it wasn't devastating either.
"Let me tell you something," Izzo said. "This team went a long, long way. What I've got to guard against is probably people questioning it, because we've had a lot of adverse things that happened.
"We could never get going to the level I think we could have reached."
Izzo's summation applied to the season as well as the game against Duke, which was stopped on a continuous basis by the referees' whistles.
Maybe the fits and stops didn't favor Duke, but they certainly frustrated the Spartans in what was otherwise a razor-close game.
Both teams made 20 shots, with MSU attempting just one more with 50. Michigan State held only a 33-29 edge in rebounding, but was called for 24 fouls to 17. The Spartans kept turnovers down to 11, and forced eight.
The difference in the outcome can be found in the not-so-subtle nuances of the way the game was called and played. Nix and Dawson both found themselves in foul trouble early and played just 11 and nine minutes of the first half, respectively.
Meantime, Duke guard Seth Curry proved to be all but un-guardable while en route to a 29-point performance. Curry set a Lucas Oil Stadium record with six of the Blue Devils' seven 3-point field goals (on 18 attempts) while MSU converted just 3 of 12 3-point tries. Duke also went 24-for-26 from the free-throw line while MSU made 18 of 24 foul shots.
The Spartans avoided swerving off the road in the first half when Payne, who barely made it through Thursday's shoot-around and didn't participate in the full practice, completed a 9-2 run with a 3-pointer that cut Duke's eight-point lead down to one just before halftime.
The game turned during a 14 ½-minute span, during which MSU made just one basket and missed 6 of 7 shots, that ended on Dawson's jump shot that reduced the deficit to 62-53 with 3:34 remaining.
"It just seemed that that whistle was blowing all the time and we never got in the flow of this game," Izzo said. "Then in the second half, after (Curry) hit those three 3s, it just seemed like the separation was going to be too much for us.
"I'll be very disappointed about tonight, I'll be ticked off about a few things and I'll be bummed out about a few things when I watch the film," Izzo said. "But I will not be disappointed about what this team accomplished this year under the circumstances of some injuries, of the schedule.
"I'll be as proud of this team as any I've ever had."
Appling, who led MSU with 16 points, was inconsolable after the loss that cost his best friend a return trip to the Final Four.
"The thing that really hurts about it is that all of us have another year, or a couple years, left, but this is (Nix's) last go-around," Appling said. "It's tough about to talk about just what happened. The feeling is unreal that we won't be playing on Sunday.
"He had a great senior season, he did a lot of great things for this team and we all watched him grow a person and a player. He has nothing to hang his head over, but as a team we wanted to send him out on a good note and we weren't able to do that."
Nix, who finished with nine points and nine rebounds, said the end started closing in on him when Duke restored a 10-point lead while he was sitting on the bench with 30 seconds left.
"I just said, `Aw shoot,' and as the seconds ticked down I got like a rage through my body," Nix said. "No more Spartans for me. I'm pretty emotional right now even though it may not show on my face.
"You never realize it's gone until it's gone. I don't get a chance to come back next year, so all I can think of is graduating in May and what's next, as far as basketball is concerned, who knows what the future holds.
"It's kind of scary."
At least he leaves MSU prepared for whatever adversity comes his way, the rest of the way.