A Bad Michigan State Game, A Great MSU Season: A Proud Spartan Says Thanks

And then that happened. The score of Michigan State University’s game in Thursday’s NCAA “Sweet Sixteen” (regional semifinal) basketball contest speaks for itself: Louisville 57, MSU 44.

The statistics also speak for themselves. The Spartans shot just 29 percent from the field, a figure that made Louisville’s own subpar 38 percent shooting look mighty by comparison. MSU, one of the best rebounding teams in the nation this year, was beaten off the boards by 34-32. And Michigan State had 15 turnovers — several of which were converted into easy baskets by Louisville — to their opponents’ nine. Draymond Green, the senior forward, team captain and inspirational leader, had 13 points and 16 rebounds, yet no one could say it was even close to his best performance in green and white.

So we Spartisans could have ourselves a big old pity party, bemoaning how a team that overcame low pre-season expectations to win the Big 10 championship and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament could end the year on such a sour note.

But we won’t.

Because when you strip away the hopes and expectations that the team had built with its amazing run, it is easy to grab onto the perspective that this, from Day 1, has been a Cinderella season for Michigan State and its fans.

The Spartans entered their 2011-12 campaign coming off one of the most difficult seasons of head coach Tom Izzo’s tenure, which has now produced one national championship, five other visits to the Final Four, 15 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and games in the Sweet Sixteen in 10 of those 15 years, including this one.

Last year’s Michigan State team, which arguably had more individual talent than this year’s, nonetheless went just 19-15, finished 9-9 for a tie for fourth in the Big 10, got knocked out of the Big 10 tournament by upstart Penn State, and was one-game-and-out in the NCAA tourney with a first-round loss to mediocre UCLA. That downturn was largely attributed to poor team chemistry among the players.

From that team, MSU lost star starters Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers to graduation, sixth man Korie Lucious to a transfer that resulted from discipline problems, and senior Delvon Roe, who simply could no longer play on his injury-damaged knees. The Spartans entered this season with Green as the only player with substantial Michigan State experience in the starting lineup.

MSU started their schedule unranked in the national Top 25, and would remain so until the sixth week. Izzo, who throughout his career has tested his players with a difficult out-of-conference schedule, topped himself by committing his team to an opening game against top-ranked North Carolina — played on the deck of an aircraft carrier docked in San Diego — and then a game against highly ranked Duke across the country at New York’s Madison Square Garden just four days later. The Spartans lost both to start out the season 0-2.

But then things gelled. Green’s court talent and fired-up leadership; the emergence of junior Derrick Nix and sophomore Adriean Payne as a strong platoon at center; the rapid improvement of forward Brenden Dawson, a touted freshman recruit and full-year starter until a knee injury in the Spartans’ last regular season game knocked him out of post-season play; solid backcourt play from sophomore point guard Kevin Appling, with contributions from senior transfer Brandon Wood and freshman Travis Trice; and the steady play of senior swing man Austin Thornton, a former walk-on.

All this added up to a 15-game winning streak after those initial two losses, and ultimately a tie with overwhelming pre-season conference favorite Ohio State and Michigan for the regular season Big 10 title, a run through Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State for the Big 10 tournament championship, and two wins in the NCAAs before they finally hit a wall that they couldn’t run through.

So we will smile with pride when we walk into the Breslin Center arena and see that Big 10 championship banner and the inevitable retired jersey number 23 worn by Draymond Green. We thank Green, Thornton, Wood and departing senior reserve Anthony Ianni for their contributions. We thank the players who will be returning next year with their desire to succeed tempered more strongly by Thursday’s disappointment.

But there is a greater truth that I should make clear, because I spend so much time on my blog writing about the games that Michigan State athletes play.

I do not love Michigan State University because I love Michigan State sports.

I love Michigan State sports because I love Michigan State University.

I have been attached to MSU for more than 38 years, when I enrolled there in my first time living away from my home in New York. I wasn’t there a week when I was hired to work on the campus radio station and spent four years pursuing my goal of becoming a sportscaster. I have watched with pride as the good public university that I attended became an excellent public university, a place where scientists cure cancer and split atoms, where business executives are taught and leaders in dozens of different fields are shaped. I made friendships that have withstood the passage of almost four decades, am deeply engrossed in alumni affairs as a member of the Chicago Spartans board, and when I walk on campus Friday next week to attend a luncheon honoring scholarship recipients, I will feel as at home as my 17-year-old self did in 1973.

It is also the place where I learned to try and if it didn’t work out, to try and try and try again. That’s why so many of us have taken so strongly to the school’s current marketing slogan: Spartans Will. Because even if we did not this time, we will.

We’ll Take Our Chances With Izzoball, Thank You

The Tuesday edition of the New York Times included a column by writer Pete Thamel that came to the not-illogical conclusion that University of Kentucky rates the favorite of 16 teams remaining in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. After all, Kentucky, a team stacked with players considered to be strong NBA pro prospects, has lost only two of its 36 games this season and was dominant in its two tournament games so far.

But the column contained one line that stopped me in my tracks. Citing the fact that freshman — first-year — players Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are predicted to go number 1 and number 2 in the upcoming NBA draft, and that as many as three other Kentucky underclassmen may also go high, Thamel said, “Years from now people will look back in wonderment that a single college team included such talent.”

Wonderment? The only thing I’m wondering is what planet you have to be on to know exactly why Kentucky is getting all that professional caliber talent. And it has nothing to with breaking any rules. What Kentucky has accomplished — unfortunately, from my perspective — is not only totally within the rules, but is encouraged by them.

The rule that has contributed most to giving Kentucky’s program its reputation as “One and Done U.” — a place where top talents congregate because they don’t expect to stay in college for long enough for their cup of coffee to get cold — is an age limit instituted six years ago by the NBA. The rule prevents players from going directly from high school to the pros by requiring that they be at least 19 years ago and at least one year out of high school.

The rule works for the NBA teams because it enables them to use the college game as a proving ground to show that talented, ticketed-for-stardom kids are really going to live up to the hype. Although some of the greatest players in NBA history, such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, went pro straight from high school, there were more than a few cases in which teams got burned by expending high draft picks and a lot of money on players who turned out to be unready for the pros.

The rule works for the NCAA, the broadcast networks that carry games and anyone else who has a serious financial interest in the huge industry that college ball has become. These highly rated kids may have no intention of staying more than a year or two, but that is a year or two in which the college basketball establishment can make a buck off their talents.

But the rule also requires young men — some of whom would willingly gamble on their belief that they are talented enough to make millions immediately in the NBA — to go through what is essentially a charade that they are enrolling in a college with the intention of staying long enough to get a diploma, or even establish a connection with the college community beyond whatever athletic glory they can deliver during their short visit. It turns colleges into way stations, places where NBA-caliber talents have to incubate their careers for the one year necessary to meet the pro league’s requirement.

The reason that I was taken aback by the Times reporter’s wonderment is that no team  has been as aggressive or prolific as Kentucky at taking full advantage of this rule. Kentucky has pretty much hung out a banner welcoming one-and-done players since head coach John Calipari arrived in 2009 from a gig at University of Memphis (where he coached current Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose for his one great season in college).

In his first year, Calipari brought in a tremendous recruiting class. Even though his team got knocked out in the regional finals (known as the “Elite Eight”), five of his players — including all four star freshmen — left for the NBA. Last year’s team was powered to an appearance in the Final Four by guard Brandon Knight, who also went pro after one year.

It looks like Kentucky could again lose a whole starting team’s worth of underclassmen to the NBA, but no worries… Kentucky’s incoming freshmen class is rated number 2 in the nation by ESPN.com, just behind Arizona, a school whose program is looking to rebound after a few off years.

And it may not even be done yet. Nerlens Noel, a 6-11 center who is regarded as the best high-school senior player in the country, has narrowed his college choices to Kentucky, Georgetown and Syracuse. And in a revealing comment to ESPN.com describing his recent official visit to campus, Noel said, “Kentucky, when I was there they showed me how good of a job they do with their players and that maybe in 1-2 years in college I could be a professional.”

This situation has created something of a ritual during NCAA tournament time. Calipari is questioned by the national media about whether his program is less college sports and more NBA Developmental League; Calipari responds that he dislikes the rule as much as anybody and rolls out a list of reforms the NCAA can institute to provide incentives for players to stay in school for longer than a year, including paying players a financial stipend.

Meanwhile, the broadcast announcers generally take a see-no-evil approach and focus on the players’ marvelous talent (“Look at Kentucky’s latest crop of diaper dandies, bay-bee!”).

Sports may be the only thing more rife with situational ethics than politics, so Kentucky fans defend their school’s perpetual motion recruiting machine with the same fervor that they’d be denouncing it if Calipari’s next career stop had been at, say, archrival Louisville rather than in Lexington.

And those of us who root for teams that follow the traditional model of trying to build championship teams with players nurtured over four years — like Michigan State under head coach Tom Izzo — hold onto hope that the senior leadership of a player such as Draymond Green can overcome the superior but less experienced talent of what appears the equivalent of an NBA all-rookie team.

We Spartans are very proud of the fact that Izzo’s teams have won a national championship and gone to five other Final Fours in his 17 years as head coach, and prouder still that the program’s academic progress and graduation rates have improved greatly during that time. Some of the greatest names in recent MSU basketball history — Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Drew Neitzel, Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Draymond Green — were four-year players.

We wouldn’t want it any other way.

MSU Recruits Costello, Valentine Run 1-2 For Mr. Michigan Basketball

The award given annually to the best high school boys’ basketball player in Michigan is known as “Mr. Michigan Basketball.” But maybe it’s time for them to rename it “Mr. Michigan State Basketball,” given Spartan head coach Tom Izzo’s knack for recruiting the state’s best of the best.

It would be satisfying enough for MSU fans to know that 6-10 center Matt Costello of Bay City, whose huge scoring and rebounding stats earned him the MVP trophy, will be wearing green and white in East Lansing next year. But the close runner-up is also a Michigan State recruit: guard Denzel Valentine, whose passing skills have reminded some observers of Magic Johnson. Valentine plays for a Lansing Sexton High School team — coached by his father, former MSU basketball team captain Carlton Valentine — that has just blown the doors off most of its opponents during his senior season.

MSU Big: Matt Costello, seen here with his new Mr. Michigan Basketball trophy, averaged 25 points and 18 rebounds per game in his senior year at Bay City Western (Photo credit: Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

And now here’s the kicker. Neither of these home-state stars is regarded by scouts as the premier player in Izzo’s 2012 recruiting class. That would be Gary Harris, rated the top player in Indiana and the top high-school senior shooting guard in the nation by some scouting services.

Kenny Kaminski, another highly rated power forward who missed his senior year of basketball because of a leg injury incurred playing football, rounds out a recruiting class that ESPN.com rates sixth among all colleges — behind only Arizona, Kentucky, Texas, Baylor and North Carolina, and three places ahead of Indiana, the next highest-rated Big 10 team.

Costello’s claim on the MVP trophy makes it the fourth consecutive year in which an MSU commit has been named Mr. Michigan Basketball (though last year’s winner, guard Dwaun Anderson, decided not to enroll citing his troubles adjusting to the death of his mother, and  is now attending Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y.). Center Derrick Nix and guard Keith Appling, teammates at Detroit Pershing High School who won the 2009 and 2010 Mr. Basketball awards respectively, are now mainstays of the current Spartan team that won the Big 10 championship and has made it to the Sweet Sixteen — the regional semifinals — in the ongoing NCAA post-season tournament.

It is the ninth time in the past 14 years that a player recruited by Izzo has been named Mr. Michigan Basketball (a number that includes Anderson). Of the others, only two were successfully recruited by MSU’s in-state archrival, University of Michigan.

Spartans are fortunate that Michigan State is one of just 16 schools whose fans have not already had to say, “Wait til next year.” So you can put all of this in the back of your mind for now. And — fingers tightly crossed — for two weeks, until after the championship final.

There is no doubt that the kids coming in have big shoes to fill, especially those of forward and team captain Draymond Green, whose efforts as both a player and a leader already have earned him Big 10 Player of the Year honors and have made him a solid candidate for national player of the year. And you never want to presume that even the best high school players will be able to replicate their numbers in the far-tougher arena of Big 10 basketball.

Still, if the Class of 2012 comes even close to the hype preceding it, the prospects for Izzo’s roll of success continuing well into the future look bright indeed.

See? Michigan State WAS The Nation’s Best 1-2 Basketball Team

In the wake of the Big 10 Championship won Sunday by the Michigan State men’s basketball team, I’m going to do a little bragging. Not about the team per se, but about a couple of things I wrote about the team late last fall, at the very beginning of the season.

Yes, it was the Cooler on the Lake Shore blog that declared to the world on Nov. 18, 2011 that the Michigan State Spartans were the best 1-2 team in college basketball. Four months, 26 wins, only five additional losses, a three-way tie for the regular season Big 10 championship, a Big 10 Tournament championship and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament later — I guess I was right.

Now, I realize that some people might think boastfulness is unbecoming. I typically agree. But coming from 30 years in political journalism in Washington, I have witnessed some folks achieve spectacular results through relentless self-promotion. So I’ll just have to ask you to indulge me, just this one time.

I’ll also take a second to clarify what I try to bring to the MSU sports analysis that I post on this blog. Anyone stumbling on this blog who is not a citizen of Spartan Nation could easily conclude that I’m just a blatant homer, someone wasting his free time doing rah-rah nonsense on the Internetz. This would not be totally incorrect, but it’s an incomplete portrait.

In reality, the very reason that I decided to attend Michigan State (as an out-of-stater from New York) was to pursue my goal of become a sportscaster.

I was a Television and Radio major — the name was changed to Telecommunications while I was a student — not Journalism. I did sports for the campus radio network from my first week in college; and covered men’s basketball for four years.

The four years immediately BEFORE Earvin Johnson came to MSU to work his Magic. FML.

You can probably tell I’ve followed Spartan sports intensely for the 35 years since I graduated, even though I went down another road professionally not long after I got my degree. So while I openly confess to a serious partisan bias, what I try to bring to the things I write about MSU is a bit of dispassionate analysis based on a lifetime of passion for the games people play. And I am entirely grateful to all of you who take the time to read it.

Now, as I was saying… I was prompted to write that November 18 piece after MSU defeated little Texas Southern to break into the win column for the first time in the season. It was the kind of slightly upscale scrimmage in which all major college teams engage as they are warming up for their conference schedules.

What most major college teams don’t do is what Michigan State did: play national powers North Carolina and Duke to start the season. With a team that had an unusually mediocre season last year (after two consecutive Final Four appearances) and had lost a lot of talent to graduation, injury and transfers. Oh, and did I mention the North Carolina game was played on the deck of an aircraft carrier based in San Diego, with the president of the United States in attendance, and the Duke game was four days later at Madison Square Garden in New York?

This brutal opening schedule was in keeping with a strategy to which MSU head coach Tom Izzo has held throughout his Hall of Fame-bound career. Izzo views playing tough national competition during the pre-conference schedule as seasoning that does his team good in March — a theory backed up by the fact that the Spartans have won one national championship and gone to five other Final Fours in his 17-year tenure. And while MSU lost to North Carolina by 12 and to Duke by five, there were signs that this was going to be the kind of aggressive, all-in basketball team that prospers under Izzo.

That’s what prompted me to write after the Texas Southern game on November 18: “There are some very positive takeaways from this 1-2 start. This team is playing Izzoball — crashing the boards, chasing after loose balls, and playing all out for 40 minutes, whether they are trailing by double digits as they were against North Carolina and Duke or winning by 30+  as they were against Texas Southern.”

It took a while for the nation’s basketball establishment to catch on… a little too long for my tastes. In a December 1 post headlined, “Rankled by Spartan Basketball’s Low Ranking,” I expressed the hope that MSU’s home victory over a tough Florida State team by a 16-point margin — its fifth win in a row — would persuade those who vote in the national polls to at least acknowledge the unranked Spartans belonged in the Top 25.

Reads the post:  ”So far, MSU has averaged 42.3 rebounds a game (one of the best marks of any team in the country) to 32.6 for opponents, a differential of almost 10 per game. Opposing teams have been held to an average of 53 points per game, 14 less than the Spartans; in four of the five wins, MSU has held its opponents under 50 points. And if Michigan State’s field-goal percentage looks a bit lame, check out the 36 percent rate to which they are holding the other guys. If you follow the Spartans, you will recognize numbers like that. They sound a lot like the kind of defensive effort that has been the trademark of Tom Izzo’s best teams.”

Yet it took two more weeks and three more wins — including a tough road victory at Gonzaga — for Michigan State to crack the rankings. The Spartans would ultimately run that to 15 in a row, including a 74-60 win on Dec. 17 over Bowling Green that I had the pleasure of attending. The accompanying post … with action photos! … is headlined, “My Victory at MSU, Long Overdue.”

Draymond Green, senior forward and team captain, in action in the Bowling Green game. Green would go on to be honored as Big 10 player of the year and a first-team All-American.

OK, you get the idea. But I’m just going to point out one more passage. On February 12, after MSU upset fellow Big 10 championship contender Ohio State on the road in Columbus, I wrote this: “If this Michigan State team is able to maneuver through the traps of these final six games without incurring serious damage, Izzo should be a serious candidate for another national coach of the year honor.”

Today, CBS Sports, which is the home network for the NCAA championship tournament, named Izzo as national coach of the year. It’s nice to be right.

Especially when you’re a homer.

Tom Izzo, newly named as national coach of the year, keeps an eye on the ref during MSU's early-season game against Bowling Green.

 

 

The Moon, The Lake and The Big 10 Basketball Tournament

Before I get to the subject at hand, which is the first day of the Big 10 men’s basketball tournament, a couple of photos. I hope this isn’t getting tiresome, but there just are days when I look out the window and see things that are breathtakingly beautiful. Tonight, with a clear sky and a full moon illuminating Lake Michigan, was one of those times.

Now, about the basketball… reviewing today’s games in the order they occurred:

Iowa 64, Illinois 61

The first-round matchup between these two teams was appropriate, because each of them defied the expectations held for them at the start of the season — Iowa in a positive sense, Illinois negatively.

Illinois was viewed as a solid middle-of-the-pack team with an outside chance of contending for the Big 10 championship and seemed to verify that early on, as the Illini won their first 10 games, started the conference schedule 11-2 and then won four of their first five Big 10 games, capped by a 79-74 home win over Ohio State, the team favored to win the league title.

Iowa, with a new coach (Fran McCaffrey) and a lack of experienced talent and leadership on the court, was widely viewed as a candidate for last place, and seemed to confirm that early on too. The Hawkeyes were 8-5 in a weak pre-conference schedule that included a loss by 16 points, at home yet, to the Campbell Fighting Camels of the Big South Conference. Iowa then started out the Big 10 season with three wins and six losses that included a 29-point whacking by Ohio State in Iowa City and a 34-point road loss at Michigan State.

But the end of the season was a dramatically different story for both teams. Illinois nosedived, losing 11 of its last 13, and one of its wins was a bizarre 42-41 mess of a home game against Michigan State in which Draymond Green, the Spartans’ star player, was sick and then was knocked out of the game by an injury. Iowa, on the other hand, was 5-4 down the stretch (despite losing at Illinois for the Illini’s only other win) — not spectacular, but enough to boost their Big 10 mark to 8-10 and a tie with Northwestern for 7th place in the now 12-team conference.

Illinois led today’s game, 31-27, at halftime, and led by as much as seven with a little less than 17 minutes to go. But then, as so often this season, the bottom dropped out. By the time a 25-10 Iowa run ended more than 10 minutes later, the Hawkeyes led by eight. Although Illinois teased its fans again by closing to within one on a 3-pointer with 20 seconds left, they could not come all the way back.

Though Illinois could still draw a bid to the second-tier National Invitational Tournament with its overall record of 17-16 (6-13 in the Big 10), it faces a major period of transition. It is widely presumed that the school will part way with Coach Bruce Weber, who had a decent nine-year run but never again approached the heights of his second year, when the Illini went 37-2 and played all the way to the NCAA final before losing a close game to University of North Carolina. Meyers Leonard, the 7-foot-1 sophomore center, has skills that are a work in progress, but his height has drawn interest from the NBA that could prompt him to leave early for the pros.

Iowa, led against Illinois by senior guard Matt Gaten’s 20 points, has to turn around quickly to play Friday against Michigan State, which is seeded number 1 in the tournament after tying for the regular season Big 10 championship with Ohio State and Michigan.

The Spartans are 24-7 overall and 13-5 in the league, but will be tested by a two-game end-of-season slump that saw them lose by 15 at Indiana and by 2 at home to Ohio State in a game that deprived MSU of an outright regular season title. And this will be Michigan State’s first full game without freshman starter Brenden Dawson, who suffered a knee injury in the Ohio State game that required surgery and has him sidelined for the post-season.

Indiana 75, Penn State 58

Nothing much to say in detail about this wholly expected outcome in a game between Indiana — a traditional power whose resurgence after several bad seasons produced an overall record of 25-7 and a Big 10 mark of 11-7 — and Penn State, a team that tied for last in the Big 10 with a 4-14 mark (12-20 overall).

Indiana was led in scoring by junior guard Jordan Hulls, who had 20 points, and freshman center Cody Zeller, who had 19. Zeller also was one of three Hoosiers who pulled down 10 rebounds. Junior guard Tim Frazier led Penn State with 26 points, but the load he had to carry was evident in the fact that he attempted 24 field goals, hitting nine.

Indiana, seeded fifth, moves on to play 4th-seeded Wisconsin (23-8 overall, 12-6 Big 10) in what appears to be a very even matchup. The teams played only once during the regular season, with Wisconsin scoring a 57-50 home win on Jan. 26.

Minnesota 75, Northwestern 68 (overtime)

Northwestern is one of the few Division I basketball programs that has never qualified for the NCAA tournament. After the Wildcats came close in recent years, this season began with high hopes that this would be THE year. But the loss by 7th-seeded Northwestern to #10th seeded Minnesota appeared to snuff out those already flickering hopes.

What has to be especially galling to Northwestern fans is how painfully close their team (now 18-14 on the season) came to being very, very good. Along with a signature 81-74 upset over Michigan State at home in January, Northwestern lost three times in overtime, including both their games with eventual Big 10 co-champion Michigan; came from way behind to tie eventual co-champion Ohio State in their next to last regular season game, only to lose by two at home; also lost at home by one against Illinois and by two against Purdue; and lost by just five at Indiana.

Minnesota, which now has an overall record of 20-13 despite going 7-12 in the Big 10, was led against Northwestern by guard Andre Hollins’ 25 points. The Golden Gophers now play #2 seed Michigan, which won the only regular season matchup between the team by 61-56 in Ann Arbor on New Year’s Day.

Northwestern was led by 24 points by sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, who was hindered by injuries for most of the season, and senior John Shurna, the school’s career scoring leader, who had 21 but was held without a field goal for the last 13 minutes of the game.

Purdue 79, Nebraska 61

Purdue was as inconsistent during the regular season as its 10-8 Big 10 record (6th in the conference) would suggest. But the Boilermakers still overmatched Nebraska, which finished its first basketball season as a member of the Big 10 tied for last place with Penn State at 4-14.

Purdue cinched this victory with runs of 15-0 in the first half and 28-13 in the second half. Five Purdue players finished in double figures. The Boilermakers move on to a much taller challenge in the second round against Ohio State — though they gave the Buckeyes all they could handle before dropping an 87-84 decision in Columbus Feb. 7, their only meeting in the regular season.

As tough as this season was for Nebraska, they now face the prospect of rebuilding. Guards Bo Spencer (22 points) and Toney McCray (13 points) , the Cornhuskers’ leading scorers as they were during the regular season, both are seniors.


Michigan State Hoops: A Championship Season With a Brutal Finale

It’s my usual practice to provide some instant analysis on major Michigan State athletic contests. But frankly, today’s 72-70 loss at home to Ohio State — which costs the Spartans an outright Big 10 championship and instead ended their regular season with a three-way tie for first by the margin of one basket — was a bit too brutal for me to want to relive so soon.

The day got worse for Spartan fans with the news breaking tonight that the injury that forward Branden Dawson, a rising freshman star, endured about 10 minutes into the game, is a torn knee ACL that will keep him out of post-season play. I’m sure all of Spartan Nation sends him our best wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

I’ll get back to it over the next couple of days in the run-up to the Big 10 tournament, which goes from Thursday through Sunday. Despite today’s defeat, MSU still has the number 1 seed in the tournament and a first-round bye, meaning their first game will be in Friday’s quarterfinals against the winner of Thursday’s game between 8th-seeded Iowa and 9th-seeded Illinois.

To our Spartans, congratulations and thanks for a season (with a 24-7 overall record so far and a final 13-5 regular season mark in the Big 10) that has far exceeded pre-season expectations. We’ll be raising the roof rooting for you in the Big 10 tournament and in the NCAAs beyond.

To Ohio State, congratulations on a gut-check win with a share of the title on the line. Michigan State jumped out to a 15-point lead in the first half, but the Buckeyes took our best punch, whittled away, and hit the game-winning shot that the Spartans could not come up with themselves. Ohio State was the prohibitive pre-season favorite to win the Big 10 title and was ranked #1 in the country for a brief while before hitting a few bumps (including a 10-point loss to Michigan State in Columbus a few weeks ago). So while I’d rather have seen MSU win the regular season crown outright, it doesn’t hurt my feelings to see us in a tie with Ohio State.

The third team in the three-way tie is Michigan, and the spirit of sportsmanship requires me to salute them too. It has been a long uphill climb for the Michigan program to recover from one of the worst pay-for-play scandals in college sports history, which required them to expunge the “Fab Five” team’s visit to the national championship final in 1992, its National Invitational Tournament championship in 1997 and its Big 10 tournament championship in 1998, and to forfeit all its wins for five entire seasons, 1992-93 and from 1995 to 1999. So props to the Wolverines for winning a share of the school’s first Big Ten regular season title in 26 years.

As for Michigan fans who somehow persuaded themselves that it was okay to root today for Ohio State so their team could back into that shared title — wow. How do you live with yourself after rooting for a school you claim to hate worse than the devil himself… even worse than Michigan State? Don’t you feel… tainted?

Oh, well, whatever. Here’s the punch line. In order to get to the final round of the Big 10 tournament, Michigan would almost certainly have to play Ohio State — yep, same Ohio State — in the semifinals. And Michigan State fans can’t wait to return the favor. See, we have no reason to love Ohio State, but the words “Go Buckeyes” don’t taste like poison in our mouths.

Especially when they are playing Michigan.

 

Michigan State = Basketball Champions: Once Again, the Big 10 Is The Izzone

Going into this next to last weekend in the Big 10 men’s basketball regular season, the only  thing Michigan State fans could feel confident about was that the 1st place, nationally 6th-ranked Spartans would easily win their home game against tied-for-last Nebraska.

MSU, which did win in a 62-34 walk, was in a position to clinch a share of the conference championship if their top rivals lost to tough but erratic opponents, with Michigan hosting Purdue Saturday night and Ohio State home against Wisconsin Sunday. But one big road upset would have been unusual in a season of strong home court advantage in the Big 10. Two seemed too much to ask for.

Yet, in the latest of a season full of unexpected pleasures, that is exactly what happened, with Purdue (19-10 overall, 9-7 in the Big 10) stunning Michigan (21-8, 11-5), 75-61, and Wisconsin (21-8, 10-6) coming from eight points down late in the game to edge Ohio State (23-6, 11-5) by a score of 63-60.

That gives MSU a two-game lead over both teams with two games remaining for all three teams. And it ensures that the already crowded rafters of the Breslin Center arena in East Lansing will accommodate at least one more banner at the end of this season.

Another Big 10 title -- his seventh in 17 seasons as head coach -- for Tom Izzo, seen during MSU's Dec. 17 victory over Bowling Green.

[And, as Abigail Adams once said, don't forget the ladies. Michigan State's women's basketball team won at Northwestern Sunday, 76-57, to finish the regular season 11-5 in the Big 10 Conference -- and in a four-way tie for second place with Ohio State, Purdue and Iowa, just two games behind first-place Penn State. The Spartans bounced back from a tough season start to win seven of the last eight regular season games, giving them an overall record of 19-10 and an excellent chance for another NCAA bid for Coach Suzy Merchant.]

Crowing about a clinched tie for first is something for us in the cheap seats to do. It’s doubtful that Coach Tom Izzo and his players, who are this close to winning the championship outright, are going to waste a lot of time boasting, especially with a regular season schedule that closes this week with a tough road game at Indiana (22-7, 9-7), ranked 24th in the nation and tied for fifth in the Big 10, and a Seniors’ Day finale next Sunday at home against none other than Ohio State.

There is much more on the line than just the pride of an undisputed regular season championship. The Spartans, if they win out, have a solid shot at a number 1 seed in one of the regions for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and would be virtually guaranteed a high 2 seed. (For those of you who are hoops junkies, the top-seeded teams play the lowest-ranking competition in the early rounds of the March Madness tournament, improving their chances of advancing.)

There is a good chance that when the latest national rankings are released, MSU will move ahead of Missouri, which was ranked #3 last week but lost at home to Kansas State in a big upset, then blew a 19-point lead and lost by one in overtime to their longtime archrival, #5 Kansas. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that MSU could also edge past Duke, currently ranked #4, which struggled at home to an overtime win Saturday over unheralded Virginia Tech.

Although I missed watching Michigan State’s Saturday night game against Nebraska — it conflicted with the long-awaited SpartyBall in the Windy City — one thing was clear from the outcome, in which the Cornhuskers were held to a minuscule 34 points. When Michigan State’s defense is hitting on all cylinders, it is something to behold.

That D was crucial to MSU maintaining a lead throughout the first half despite two long scoring droughts. The Spartans jumped out to a 7-0 lead after fewer than four minutes — Nebraska would not score until nearly five minutes passed — by then went five minutes without scoring again. Fortunately for MSU, the Huskers only mustered four points themselves during that stretch.

Then, after building the lead up to 23-11, MSU closed out the first half with another scoreless four minutes. Again, Nebraska took little advantage, scoring four points to whittle its halftime deficit to 23-15.

The game turned into a second-half blowout because the Spartans’ defensive lockdown persisted while the offense came to life. Michigan State put the game out of reach by outscoring Nebraska by 15-2 over the first seven minutes of the half, and ultimately built a 32-point lead before giving the starters the last few minutes off.

In outscoring Nebraska 39-19 in the second half, the Spartans shot 61 percent from the field (14 for 23), bringing their accuracy for the whole game to 56 percent. That included one of the team’s best three-point shooting performances this season: 9 for 20, or 45 percent. Meanwhile, the defense held Nebraska to 29 percent shooting for the game, including 2 for 17 (12 percent) from 3-point range.

As has so often been the case, senior forward and team captain Draymond Green led all scorers with 20 points, and his 10 rebounds — which helped MSU to a 33-21 game advantage over Nebraska — made him the fourth player in team history to break 1,000 career rebounds. Green now appears the leading candidate for Big 10 Player of the Year honors.

The schedule for the Big 10′s Big Three this week looks like this:

Tuesday: Michigan State at Indiana (7 p.m. eastern, 6 p.m. central)

Wednesday: Ohio State at Northwestern (8:30 eastern, 7:30 central)

Thursday: Michigan at Illinois (7 p.m. eastern, 6 p.m. central)

Sunday: Ohio State at Michigan State (4 p.m. eastern, 3 p.m. central); Michigan at Penn State (1 p.m. eastem, noon central)

 

 

Michigan State Basketball: Resilience Is Important Too

For fans who had gotten used to the high-flying Michigan State men’s basketball team  winning games by double-digit margins, Wednesday night’s close call at Minnesota was a reminder of two important facts. The Big 10 schedule is a grind. And there hardly ever is such a thing as an “easy road game.”

Fortunately, the Spartans’ trial by Gopher ended with a 66-61 win that extended MSU’s win streak to six (and eight of their past nine), boosted their overall record to 23-5, and kept them atop the Big 10 standings by a game over Ohio State and Michigan with a conference record of 12-3.

A win at home on Saturday over Nebraska, a team tied for last place in the Big 10, should move the Spartans up at least a spot from their #6 national ranking, as they should pass whoever loses the game Saturday between #3 Missouri and #5 Kansas. We also are obligated to root for Florida State to score a home upset tonight over #4 Duke. (To friends who are Duke fans, it’s not personal … just business.)

Still, the best thing that can be said for the Minnesota game is this: If the Spartans, after a series of relatively easy victories, needed hardening for the down-to-the-wire games they’ll likely face if they get to the later rounds of the NCAA tournament, they got it. Or as Coach Tom Izzo was quoted saying in the postgame news conference, “When you’re trying to be in a championship run, you’ve got to steal a game somewhere.”

It hasn’t been unusual, even for this year’s superb Spartans, for the team to start out slowly. As recently as last Sunday, they trailed Purdue by 3 points at the half of a game they ended up winning by 14. But it has been typical of MSU to come out for the second half, play its trademark stifling defense and get the game under control.

The Spartans did get their run in Minneapolis, but just in the nick of time. Minnesota actually dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half, building a nine-point lead (48-39). And the Golden Gophers led by six, at 58-52, as late as 3:05 remaining. That’s when the Spartans took over, taking advantage of sloppy Minnesota ballhandling and scoring 12 unanswered points.

The game still was up for grabs until the closing moments. MSU did not take the lead, at 60-58, until point guard Keith Appling hit two free throws with 32 seconds left. Minnesota took a shot at grabbing the lead back eight seconds later, but Austin Hollins’ three-point attempt missed everything. The Spartans finally clinched the deal by going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line, negating Hollins’ successful three-pointer with two ticks remaining.

The biggest bright spot for Michigan State was the timely re-emergence of guard Brandon Wood, who scored 13 points on 6-for-10 field goal shooting and scored three key baskets during the game-winning rally. Wood, a senior transfer who had starred for three years at mid-major Valparaiso, began the season as a starter and key scoring contributor, but a mid-season slump had lowered his standing in Izzo’s player rotation.

He picked a good game for a comeback, because senior guard Austin Thornton, fresh off a career-high 17 points against Purdue, missed all five of his field goal attempts (four of them from three-point range) and didn’t score until he hit two free throws with one second left to provide the final five-point margin.

Other Spartan stalwarts had tough games. Senior forward and team leader Draymond Green led MSU scorers with 17 points but shot just 5-for-14 from the field and had five rebounds, less than half his season average. Appling was 3-of-8 from the field, though his clutch 7-for-8 free throw shooting boosted him to 13 points and he tied Green for the team lead in assists with five.

It seems pretty certain that the Big 10 regular season championship race will go down to the last week. All three top contenders have their third-to-last games coming up, and all will be favored to win.

Michigan State plays Nebraska (12-14 overall, 4-11 in the Big 10) in East Lansing, where the Spartans haven’t even come close to losing a game this season. Michigan (21-7 overall, 11-4 in the league) has a somewhat tougher test against Purdue (18-10 overall, 8-7 and tied with Indiana for fifth in the league), but the game is in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines are undefeated this year.

The toughest matchup is fourth-place Wisconsin (20-7 overall, 9-5 in the Big 10, pending its game tonight at Iowa) at Ohio State (23-5 and 11-4). Still, home court looks like a big deal here too, as Ohio State has lost only one game this year in Columbus (to Michigan State). The Buckeyes scored a road win at Wisconsin, 58-52, on Feb. 4, and the Badgers, as good as they have been for the most part this year, have lost all four games they’ve played against the top three contenders.

 

Spartans Go Right Through Purdue, Sit Alone Atop Big 10

It’s great to see that the Michigan State men’s basketball team’s excellent season is earning it a lot of network TV time from CBS. But today’s Sunday noon start, which conflicted with my weekly guitar lesson, forced a rare miss of a Spartan basketball game. And I may have gasped a little in the middle of our bass runs when an ESPN alert on my cell phone informed me that MSU was trailing at halftime, 38-35, against a short-handed Purdue team that stands several rungs lower in the Big 10 standings.

Any worry evaporated, though, when I checked the score a few minutes later and saw that MSU, playing on the road in West Lafayette, Indiana, opened the second half with 10 consecutive points and then expanded its lead to 55-44 with less than 10 minutes left. The final of 76-62, yet another double-digit margin in a season full of them, boosted the Spartans to 22-5 overall on the season.

More significantly, at least in the short run, Michigan State now has sole possession of first place in the Big 10 race with four games left to play over the final two weeks of the regular season. MSU, now 11-3 in the league, has a one-game lead over both Ohio State (the heavy pre-season favorite to win the conference) and Michigan because the Wolverines defeated the Buckeyes, 56-51, on Saturday night in Ann Arbor.

There is no way that Coach Tom Izzo is going to spend any time measuring space in the team’s showcase for the Big 10 championship trophy. The Spartans have another road game Wednesday at Minnesota, a home game Saturday against Nebraska, and their final road game at Indiana on February 28. While taking nothing for granted, MSU has a much better record and is playing much better basketball than these teams. So barring a big upset, the Spartans will be playing for an outright regular season championship on Sunday, March 4 at home against Ohio State.

Whatever happens down the line, MSU is gaining regard as a potent threat to go far in the NCAA “March Madness” tournament, and a #1 seeding is far from out of the question, especially if the Green and White get the gold with a first place Big 10 finish. While success has been no stranger to Izzo during his 17 years as head coach — his teams have won one national championship and made it to the Final Four five other times — this year’s turnaround must be regarded as one of his finest achievements.

Most of the basketball pundits had modest expectations for this year’s Spartans, and some wrote them off altogether after the team opened its season with losses to national powerhouses North Carolina and Duke. It took until the sixth week of the season for Michigan State to even crack the lower tier of the Top 25 in national polls.

While it would easy to scoff at the so-called experts as a bunch of short-sighted dopes, they weren’t without reason. MSU entered last season rated as a favorite to make its third consecutive Final Four, but fell way short of expectations because of problems with team chemistry, player discipline and injuries, ending with a 19-15 record overall (9-9 in the Big 10) after losing a first-round NCAA game to UCLA.. Mainstays Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers departed after their senior seasons and rising senior Delvon Roe was forced to quit because his knees had been wrecked by injury. That left only Draymond Green, the senior forward and team captain, as experienced leadership on a mostly young team.

But the evolution of this basketball season has shown again the wonders that can happen when Izzo gets a full squad of players who like each other, are on the same page, and are completely bought into the aggressive style of ball that he teaches.

The core of Izzoball is tenacious defense and fierce rebounding, both of which were amply on display against Purdue, especially in the second half. The Spartans had allowed an uncharacteristically high 38 points in the first 20 minutes on 47 percent field goal shooting by Purdue, largely because senior Boilermakers star Robbie Hummel went on a tear and piled up 18 points. But MSU’s defense after halftime was so stifling that Purdue missed 23 of its first 24 shots, ending up with 23 percent on the half and 34 percent for the game (compared to 51 percent for Michigan State).

MSU, one of the nation’s top rebounding teams this season, bested Purdue on the boards by 44-32, led by 11 for rising freshman star Brenden Dawson (who also scored 15 points) and 10 for Green (who led MSU with 20 points). Wide-body center Derrick Nix had his second straight strong offensive performance, again scoring 12 points off the bench.

But perhaps the most interesting, and potentially important, development was the 17-point scoring by senior guard Austin Thornton. A role player rather than a star throughout his Michigan State career, Thornton has often seemed hesitant about shooting the ball and has had mixed success when he did shoot. But he has shown signs of growing confidence of late, and if he continues to emerge as an offensive option, it will just give opponents one more thing to worry about down the regular season home stretch and into the tournaments.

Although MSU’s ability to hold Hummel to six points in the second half was a key to victory, his game-high 24 points needs to be acknowledged. Hummel seemed on the verge of greatness but tore up a knee late in his junior season of 2009-10 and then re-injured it, forcing him to sit out the whole 2010-11 season. He has had a bit of an up-and-down senior season — he scored just two points and was zero-for-11 from the field in Michigan State’s blowout home win over Purdue on Jan. 21 — but his courageous comeback rates a tip of the hat.

Looking ahead, here’s the lineup of games for the leading Big 10 contenders over the next week:

Tuesday: Illinois at Ohio State; Michigan at Northwestern

Wednesday: Michigan State at Minnesota

Saturday: Nebraska at Michigan State; Purdue at Michigan\

Sunday: Wisconsin at Ohio State

 

 

Today’s Big Game in the Big 10: Ohio State at Michigan

For die-hard Michigan State fans, any contest between Ohio State and Michigan is one in which we wish the rules allowed both teams to lose. Unfortunately, that isn’t how sports works, so I’ve been trying to fathom whether it would benefit MSU’s Big 10 basketball title hopes more if Ohio State wins or if Michigan wins.

As things stand at this moment, Michigan State is tied with Ohio State (the pre-season favorite to win the conference) with a record of 10-3. Michigan is one game behind, at 9-4. In terms of head-to-head play so far this season, MSU scored a big road win by a 10-point margin at Ohio State, and the two teams have an East Lansing rematch on March 4 in their final game of the regular season schedule; MSU and UM split their two games, with Michigan winning by 1 in Ann Arbor and Michigan State winning by 10 in East Lansing.

Logic suggests that Spartan fans, despite the obviously offensive nature of the suggestion, should be rooting for Michigan to hold its home court and knock Ohio State down a peg. Should MSU win at Purdue Sunday afternoon, the Spartans would move into sole possession of first place if Michigan also defeats Ohio State tonight (an outcome that would put the Buckeyes and Wolverines into a tie for second place).

Logic, however, has little to do with a sports rivalry between the state of Michigan’s two Big 10 powers, in which the default option for MSU fans is to ALWAYS root for UM to lose. And we were reminded during the football season this past fall of the dangers of overthinking, and deceiving ourselves that it would be better for Michigan to beat one of Michigan State’s other rivals in the Big 10 standings.

The scenario was this: Going into the next to last week of the football regular season, a win by Michigan State against overmatched Indiana and a victory by Michigan over Nebraska would enable MSU to clinch first place in the Big 10′s Legends Division and punch its ticket to the first-ever Big 10 football championship game. And that’s how it played out. Though MSU and Michigan ended the regular season with identical 10-2 overall records, the Spartans’ win over the Wolverines in October enabled them to finish 7-1 in the league and one game ahead of their archrivals in the Legends Division.

MSU then played for the second time in the season against Wisconsin, a rematch of the October Homecoming game that Michigan State won on a “Hail Mary” touchdown pass. The Spartans lost a classic battle by just 42-39, proving to most Big 10 football fans that they and Wisconsin were indeed the best teams in the conference this season. But because of the warped logic of the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS, Michigan State’s third loss of the season gave them a lower rank than Michigan, which was chosen to go to the (previously) prestigious Sugar Bowl.

In other words, the college football establishment had contrived a way to reward Michigan for a) playing the weakest schedule in the Big 10 during the regular season (they had a bye against Wisconsin); b) losing to Michigan State in its most important game; and c) thus failing to qualify to play an “extra game” in the Big 10 championship. This led a number of Michigan fans to do what comes naturally when they think they’ve pull one over on Michigan State — which is gloat. They include the clowns who held up a sign during the Sugar Bowl that read, “Spartan Tears Taste Like Sugar.’

So that perennial attitude-that-needs-adjustment pretty much rules out ever again deciding that, strategically, it would be better for Michigan to ever win a ballgame. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’ll be rooting for Ohio State to win, because we don’t want to empower them either. The best outcome would be a brutally physical game that goes at least six overtimes and, regardless of who wins, leaves both teams so exhausted that they lose big upsets in their next games on Tuesday, just three days later.

Now THAT would be entertaining!

Meanwhile, as for Michigan State’s upcoming game at Purdue, you never want to take a Big 10 win for granted, especially on the road. But the Spartans have to be considered solid favorites Sunday. First, the teams played in East Lansing on Jan. 21, and MSU won in an 83-58 romp. Second, Purdue will be playing short-handed, without two of its starters who were involved in an incident at a West Lafayette bar in the wee hours of Friday morning: forward Kelsey Barlow, who was dismissed from the basketball program altogether, and guard D.J. Byrd, a 3-point shooting threat, who was suspended for at least this game.

Michigan State enters the game ranked #7 in the nation in the AP poll with an overall record of 21-5 and that 10-3 mark in the Big 10. Unranked Purdue is 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big 10, good for sixth place in the conference.