Dec. 22, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Derrick Nix spent a few seconds Friday night contemplating exactly how far he had come in his Michigan State basketball career.
He looked back on his role as a 4.8 points- and 3.2 rebounds-per-game performer in his 115 games as a Spartan and the off-the-court issues that detracted from his worth as a player and reflected poorly on Coach Tom Izzo's program.
Then, the easy-going 6-foot-9, 270-pound senior co-captain and center with the dancer's feet and soft hands looked forward, but no further ahead than Saturday's game against Texas, which three days earlier crushed No. 23-ranked North Carolina by 18 points.
"Last night I told myself it's time to have a big game, a breakout game," said Nix after scoring a career-high 25 points while leading MSU to a 67-56 victory over the Longhorns. "A lot of people back home doubted me. Coaches, players, family members, would say, Nix is not this, Nix is not that.
"But at the end of the day, I didn't get a scholarship here because they just wanted to give it to me. I had to do something right. So I just thought it was time to take my game to the next level, and if I (continue) to play with that same energy and passion, everything will fall in place.
"My energy level was off the charts."
Nix put the first domino in motion with a feathery jump-hook 31 seconds into the first half, and the rest couldn't have fallen better if he was playing by himself in an empty gym.
Nix took advantage of Texas' lack of double-team respect by making 7 of 10 shots from the floor and 11 of 13 from the free-throw line to eclipse his previous personal record of 18 points against LIU Brooklyn in last season's NCAA Tournament. He also pulled down 11 rebounds and had a career-best four steals. Nix didn't commit any turnovers and while he got credit for only one assist, his passes from the post kept possessions alive with ball-movement.
"That's player-of-the-year numbers, right there," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "Today, he's the best we've played against. We haven't had anybody just dominate us the way he did. He was the difference in the game."
Even Nix's misbehavior turned into a positive. With Michigan State nursing a tenuous 41-40 lead, Nix drew a technical foul for barking at an official for not dealing what he perceived as a disrespectful action by a Texas player with 13:52 remaining.
After Sheldon McClellan missed both free throws, the 1,000-plus Izzone alums who returned to campus from as far away as China to fill in for the students away on break, voiced their displeasure with season-high noise levels.
The No. 20 Spartans responded in kind by breaking the game open with an 8-0 run and completed the non-conference portion of the schedule with an 11-2 record punctuated by an impressive performance against a big-name opponent.
And while it would be foolish to read too much into one game, they did establish a baseline for how Izzo can expect them to perform against Big Ten competition, starting with the Dec. 31 league-opener at Minnesota.
Junior center Adreian Payne came off the bench to score 13 points on 5-for-7 field-goal and 3-for-4 foul shooting and grab seven rebounds. Taken together, Nix and Payne scored 38 inside points, made 12 of 17 shots and missed just three of 17 free throws.
Because of them, the Spartans were able to weather freshman guard Gary Harris' five consecutive misses from 3-point range before making one and overall underwhelming 3-for-10 shooting, freshman guard Denzel Valentine's foul-plagued effort that netted just one shot and zero points and junior point guard Keith Appling's 3-for-7 foul shooting that caused him to settle for a relatively quiet 14 points.
However, Izzo has seen those players, along with the other members of the cast, at their best, and, now, after a week of intensive multi-practice days, has an even better idea of what the Spartans can do thanks to the most recent development in Nix's game.
What's more, MSU appears to be on the verge of another of its patented holiday transformations under Izzo.
"Like in Nix's case, you've got to do something once or twice to kind of see," Izzo said. "You've got to have some success at it, and he did just about everything right today. He didn't spin-baseline as much, he took his time, he let the defense come to him and kicked (the ball out) and if the defense didn't come to him, he did his job.
"Payne has been good all year, if I can keep him out of foul trouble. He really has. He makes his mistakes, but that kid's getting better, and when guys get better, teams get better."
There's also no question in Izzo's mind that Michigan State must improve significantly if it it's going to have a say in the Big Ten race, because it plays four of the other five conference teams currently ranked in the Top 25 - No. 2 Michigan, No. 6 Indiana, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 13 Minnesota - twice each.
"It's going to be a helluva grind," Izzo said. "Some people worry about peaking too early - we ain't don't that, I can promise you. There's some good news in that there's a long way to go. Those guys have the talent to do a lot of neat things, and I'm going to keep pushing them."
But if the Spartans continue to make strides individually and as a team, like the one Nix, a career 51-percent free-thrower before playing Texas, just did, Izzo has to like what they could become.
Izzo gave credit for Nix and Payne's improved foul shooting to assistant coach Mike Garland, who has overseen their countless extra attempts from the line before and after practice.
That was "a big difference in the game," Izzo said.
Garland pointed out, however, that MSU has to continue to evolve because even the newly minted, more aggressive Nix can't realistically be expected to turn in 25-and-11 every game.
"Most definitely, I thought he was very capable of doing this," Garland said. "But one thing that's going to happen now, for him and A.P. both, is we've got to hit a few more outside shots. Otherwise, it's going to be impossible for those guys to score down there.
"They're going to have to throw the ball out of there because everybody is going to collapse (defensively) inside, and dig in and double those guys. So, our perimeter guys are going to have to help out, and they will. Gary's going to hit some of those, Keith was OK, Russ (Byrd) is starting to come around. Denzel will start making some of those because they're wide open."
Before the next Spartan breakout game occurs, Izzo and Nix couldn't help but spend a little more time pondering his journey from being a grossly overweight freshman to a petulant sophomore who was left home during a trip to Hawaii to a scrape with the law last spring that nearly cost him his place on the team.
"I bet he loves the fact people were screaming and yelling for him, and that's what you want to get for kids," Izzo said. "He's still got a ways to go, but he sure is making some progress, and I do love him for that. I love guys who eventually buy in. You hope it doesn't take forever, but when they do, they're usually your guys for life.
"I don't look at fans and say, `I told you so,' because I kind of agreed with them. What I hope is that Nix appreciates it."
Nix sounds like someone yearning to make even more of a second, and even a third, chance.
"I owe this program a lot because I gave this program troubles," Nix said. "I feel like I owe it to Coach Izzo personally because he's been in my corner the whole way. I wanted to quit, and I wanted to transfer and I didn't go to Maui.
"All the drama and all the situations I've been in, I feel like I've got to give back by playing as hard as I can every night."