Before we get cracking on bracket talk, we thought we’d take a look back on Michigan State’s excellent Big Ten Tournament run, culminating with Sunday’s instant classic against Ohio State, MSU’s tournament championship, and subsequent #1 seed.
The Spartans first matchup was against the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team they had demolished at the Breslin Center during the regular season. What was most of note in this game was the play of Adreian Payne, who had 16 points, 7 rebounds, one block and played 20 minutes. It’s clear that Tom Izzo challenged some of the team’s role players to step up in Branden Dawson’s absence, and we saw the first glimpses of this in this game. The game got away from the Hawkeyes fairly quickly, and MSU was able to rest many of its main guys, including Draymond Green, for significant stretches. All in all, an excellent start to the tournament (although I was disappointed that MSU again failed to notch 100 pts against the Hawkeyes after coming so close the first time).
The Spartans second game in the Tournament gave them the chance to demolish the Wisconsin Badgers for a third time this season. The Badgers have been playing well coming into the post-season, and we knew Bo Ryan would have them ready to roll. MSU got down early, playing incredibly sloppy for the first part of the game, and getting down by 11 points. THEN #thornsanity struck, with Austin Thornton draining three triples in a row to bring MSU within 2. From that point on, it was all MSU, as the Spartans dismantled the Badgers handily for the third time in a season. Derrick Nix also played a huge role in this game…at one point, he had scored all of Michigan State’s points (7). He finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds and a steal and played 21 minutes. This was an incredibly balanced scoring effort from MSU, with Thornton notching 12 points, 13 from Keith Appling and 14 from Draymond Green.
MSU’s win over Wisconsin and Ohio State’s dismantling of the Wolverines set up a rematch between the two top teams in the Big Ten for all the marbles, just one week after Ohio State had crushed MSU’s hope of taking home sole possession of the regular season Big Ten Title. It was clear from the beginning of the game that both teams were viewing this as a game deciding the “real” Big Ten champ…with the added fact that Duke, UNC and Kansas had all lost in their conference tournaments, it was also possible the winner would get a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. From the beginning, the game was fast-paced, defense heavy and chippy. In the first half, Michigan State’s bigs did a great job on Jared Sullinger, restricting his scoring and landing him on the bench in foul trouble. MSU also did a good job of guarding William Buford without Branden Dawson. MSU took a 2 point lead into the locker room, but when OSU came out in the second half, they went on a huge run, hitting 3-pointer after 3-pointer. And then, there was Brandon Wood. Capping off a HUGE Big Ten Tournament appearance, Wood found his fifth gear, playing incredible defense, getting after the ball in transition and draining key threes to lead MSU on a 10-0 from which it never looked back. This game was incredibly close, but after that run by Wood, the Spartans were always just the one or two key steps ahead of the Buckeyes.
What does winning the Big Ten tournament mean for this team? Well, for a squad that dropped its final two games of the season, it first and foremost means a huge boost in their confidence. They can now enter the NCAA tournament with momentum. I also think winning against OSU after the heartbreaker a week before showed them (and us) that this is a team that can prepare for, and beat, anyone. There’s a lot of talk about athleticism and speed in Michigan State’s region of the NCAA bracket, but it’s not as though they’ve been playing small, slow teams all year. They went 2-1 with Ohio State this year (winning one in Columbus and one on a neutral floor), 3-0 against Wisconsin, and split home-and-homes with Michigan and Indiana. This is a team that beat Florida State and gave Duke and UNC good, close games early in the season. Now, playing their best ball, with a coach who’s dedicated to win, and wounded teammate traveling with them, I would give them a shot against anyone in the country. The contributions of the “role players” in the Big Ten Tournament- the performances turned in by Nix, Payne, Thornton and Wood- and to a lesser degree, Brandan Kearney, show that MSU is not a team where if you shut down one guy, they collapse. Draymond Green may have been the Big Ten Tournament’s MVP, but really this team functions as a unit, with Green and Izzo at its head. So do not despair, of the pundits picking Mizzou in the Final Four, or saying the Spartans will lose to the athletic Memphis Tigers. Keep Calm and Sparty on!