MSU 44, Delaware 33 – halftime musings: Adreian Payne again reminding us of his unique abilities

SPOKANE, Wash. — It’s easy to take Adreian Payne for granted on Michigan State’s basketball team.

Amid the recent hubbub around Branden Dawson and the constant check-ins on the state of Keith Appling, Payne has done his thing.

So far, in the first round of this NCAA tournament, that’s 23 points and four rebounds.

MSU’s senior power forward is perfect from outside (4 for 4 from 3), but not absent inside, working Delaware big man Carl Baptiste into foul trouble. He’s married his inside and outside games beautifully.

There is no one else like Payne playing college basketball this year.

Dawson and Appling are critical to a deep MSU run in this tournament. But Payne allows MSU to overwhelm teams offensively. His versatility offensively and athleticism on the glass are a brutal matchup.

When Payne left the court with 5:44 left in the first half, he had MSU securely ahead, 36-18. Delaware immediately went on an 8-0.

Part of what makes MSU a unique team is it’s unique parts. Payne is certainly at the top of that list.

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Why pundits joined Vegas in love with MSU on Selection Sunday

Las Vegas had long since been hitched to Michigan State’s bandwagon. Oddsmakers never left, actually. The Spartans, along with Florida and Louisville are all 6.5-to-1 odds to win the NCAA tournament as of Tuesday morning. Three co-favorites.

Sunday, after a third straight overwhelming performance in the Big Ten tournament, pundits joined the Vegas love, with ESPN’s five-member panel notably all choosing MSU to win next month in the suburbs of Dallas.

It was a reactionary position to take, a moment of subconscious instinct over deep or original thought — they’re dubbed “talking heads” for a reason; sometimes the shoe fits. The Spartans looked dominant, they were the last team anyone saw before the brackets were announced, their brand is big enough, they beat Kentucky four months ago, ergo they’re the popular pick.

The college basketball world this season has been looking for a powerful and complete team since November. What’s emerged is a bunch of pretty good, but pretty flawed teams. Some great defensively (Florida and Virginia). Others brilliant offensively (Michigan). Some with a star (Duke). Some with great talent but tons of youth (Kansas). One who won a ton and never lost, but isn’t trusted (Wichita State). Another that plays out West and out of our consciousness (Arizona). And teams that once were great, but then weren’t (Syracuse and MSU). Or weren’t and then were (Louisville).

MSU, for a weekend, was the entire package, without weakness. It was physically dominating. No one has been that this season in this sport. Not this visibly, against this level of competition.

That’s why the Spartans are the “expert” choice right now.

Why those experts are right — whether they know it or not — is MSU’s defensive versatility, its ability to negate potentially bad matchups.

It’s what made MSU intriguing entering the season. This is a rare collection of pieces, even by Tom Izzo’s standards, with its stars all excelling at defending their positions and one, Branden Dawson, able to guard three positions, and all sorts of skill sets — shooters, athletic wings and burly power forwards.

Michigan is capable of a Final Four run. So is Wisconsin. But both need the right matchups for it to happen. As do most teams, most years.

The Spartans don’t. They’re matchup proof. They’re most likely stumbling block is their own inconsistencies — should the last six weeks reemerge.

But it’s up to them, more than their foes. That makes them a smart pick, regardless of whether or not they win the tournament.

 

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MSU 38, U-M 29 – halftime musings: Spartans’ checking on the perimeter worth the fouls

INDIANAPOLIS — If Michigan State has the fouls and players to give, this is the path to victory. Aggressive defense on the perimeter has gotten the Spartans this far this afternoon.

Michigan is shooting just 32 percent (7 for 22, 4 for 14 from 3), with Nik Stauskas (13 points, 3 for 5 from 3) the only player able to get free and even that’s been rare.

The trade-off is the fouls. Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson picked up two apiece near the midpoint of the first half. But, for MSU, it’s worth it. If the Spartans play scared the whistle, Michigan’s terrific trio of wings will carve them up.

MSU’s defense is leading to points in transition (10) and off turnovers (12). Its 20-11 rebounded edge has led to 10 second-chance points. Michigan has no points off turnovers or fast-break points and only one second-chance bucket.

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Keith Appling’s game-changing jumpers; U-M’s influence on MSU; and a fresh Big Ten tourney final prediction

INDIANAPOLIS — There were two jump shots Saturday that I thought preserved Michigan State’s lead more than any other. They came early-ish in the second half, the Spartans’ once-mammoth lead trimmed to 10, with Wisconsin clearly deciding that baiting Keith Appling to shoot — or at least sagging off of him to prevent his drive — was the best course of action.

It was brilliant defense. Basketball is so much about confidence. Assault a player’s confidence and you’ve beating them. Disrespect a player’s ability to hit shots — especially one who once score 49 points in a state title game — and you’re messing with their head.

Appling handled it perfectly, though. He didn’t let it linger. He recognized what was happening, crossed over his defender and let it fly, twice scoring from about 17 feet. It’s critical MSU’s point guard make defenses think twice about packing lane and backing off of him. If he misses a few, so be it.

“Once I figured out they were laying off me,” Appling responded, when I asked when he knew he had to shoot.

“I feel like I’m a pretty good shooter,” he continued, smiling, knowing full well his struggles since January. “So if defenses are going to lay off me, I’m going to take the shot.”

That’s the correct approach. Appling’s performance was understated in Saturday’s win. He is not the player he was two months ago. But he’s at a level — pushing the ball, attacking the rim enough, defending, hustling, making sound decisions — in which MSU can win big if the rest of its parts keep playing as they are.

U-M’s influence on MSU: By the time Michigan finished off MSU on Feb. 23 in Ann Arbor, it was clear to me the Wolverines were in the Spartans’ heads. I wrote a column for Sunday’s Lansing State Journal on the importance of Sunday’s Big Ten tourney final to a rivalry at a crossroads.

This is still, slightly, Michigan State’s state. But the Wolverines have this particular group of Spartans on edge. MSU is even taking note of its rival.

“I think (Denzel Valentine), he kind of hit it, he brought a line and he said, down the stretch, when Michigan made a run (on Feb. 23), they stayed together,” Branden Dawson said. “They didn’t point fingers when they turned the ball over. I think that’s what we did toward the end. We started pointing fingers toward the end and didn’t play together.”

Dawson said MSU’s loss to Illinois was the end of pointing figures at each other.

Dawson, of course, has been MSU’s best player the last two days, better than I’ve ever seen him. He’s hitting shots, rebounding, playing defense — mostly, he’s engaged. And, of course, he’s the variable that makes it unclear who is actually the better team. Dawson didn’t play in either of the regular season meetings. He’ll guard one of U-M’s three NBA wings today.

“I’m very excited to be given a chance just to play against these guys,” Dawson said Saturday. “Just sitting out watching those two games, I felt like I could have helped out a lot.”

A (sort of) fresh prediction: I predicted the Big Ten tournament from the quarterfinals on, with MSU meeting U-M in the final. Before you give me any credit, I also had Minnesota beating Wisconsin, and the Gophers gave perhaps the worst performance of any team this weekend in the quarterfinals against the Badgers.

But those predictions were made before seeing MSU and Michigan two more times each. I originally had Michigan 79-74 in the final. I still like the Wolverines, until MSU proves otherwise, but this has been an impressive couple of days from the Spartans, and I wouldn’t be surprised is MSU wins by 15, or loses by eight.

This is going to be a highly charged afternoon. I’ll stick with my original prediction.

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MSU 43, Wisconsin 26 – halftime musings: Spartans showing they can overwhelm a higher-caliber foe

INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin is supposedly playing for a No. 1 seed this weekend. Michigan State is drilling them, with superior athletes who suddenly seem to have found a groove.

The first half of this Big Ten tournament semifinal is the first sure sign MSU is again capable of beating anyone. The Spartans dominated Northwestern Friday night, but that was a limited foe with mega matchup issues. The Badgers are a 26-win team.

MSU’s doing it on both ends of the court — holding Wisconsin to 7 of 25 shooting, while hitting 17 of 26 shots. The Spartans are winning on the glass and have 10 fast break points to Wisconsin’s zero.

The sample size is still small. But it’s growing.

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MSU vs. Wisconsin – Big Ten tournament pregame dish (with a prediction): Nigel Hayes vs. Branden Dawson

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not the only critical matchup in today’s Big Ten tournament semifinal. But it’s the one we haven’t seen.

Branden Dawson’s nine-game absence with a broken hand greatly impacted MSU’s record. Nowhere more than on Feb. 9 in Madison, when the Spartans fell 60-58 — without Dawson — and Badgers freshman Nigel Hayes abused Kenny Kaminski in the paint.

Wisconsin was slumping then. The Badgers are a better team again now. But the presence of Dawson takes away the one decisive advantage they had on MSU, even if Dawson is mostly on Sam Dekker. The trickle down is enormous.

The question is whether Dawson can string two games together at the level he played Friday. And then three games and so on and so forth. Not his jump shot, but his energy and focus.

Prediction: Tom Izzo has finally solved Bo Ryan, a mental hurdle that negated MSU’s sometimes athletic advantages for nearly a decade. The Spartans still have a ton to prove and have had their eye on the Badgers for some time. And badly want one more matchup with Michigan, which awaits on Sunday. Make it: MSU 78, Wisconsin 73

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MSU 40, Northwestern 22 – halftime musings: Spartans overwhelming Northwestern

INDIANAPOLIS — The question then becomes, is Michigan State playing overwhelming basketball, or overwhelming Northwestern?

The latter for sure.

In terms of defense and energy, and attacking offensively with confidence, this is as good is as the Spartans have looked in a while.

Sustainability is the next step. MSU can put together runs like few other teams because of its athletic gifts. But it’s also shown a willingness to let opponents back into games, to let its focus slip.

MSU is shooting extremely well thus far tonight — making 16 of 29 shots. Even Branden Dawson is hitting jumpers, and looking comfortable doing it.

But when the shots stop falling for a minute, does MSU relent defensively?

This is a the perfect start to the postseason for MSU. But it’s just a start, against a limited foe.

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MSU vs. Northwestern Big Ten tourney pregame dish: Is there any chance the Spartans could lose?

INDIANAPOLIS — One of the hardest feats in college basketball is to beat a team three times in a season.

As I write, with Michigan playing Illinois in front of me at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, I’m reminded of the 1989 Flying Illini, who overmatched U-M twice, including on the final day of the regular season finale at Crisler Arena, only to fall in the Final Four. Illinois was the better team all season. U-M won the national title.

Twenty-five years later (with many examples in-between), Northwestern won a game against Iowa Thursday night I thought the Wildcats had zero chance of winning.

The Hawkeyes were a horrible matchup for Northwestern. Iowa can score against anyone, Northwestern can’t keep pace offensively. The Wildcats lost the two regular season meetings by 26 points apiece.

And so naturally, in a game Iowa might have needed to secure an NCAA tournament bid, 11th-seeded Northwestern won, 67-62.

That brings us to tonight’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal. I’m again certain Northwestern can’t win.

MSU swept the season series, winning 54-40 in Evanston and 85-70 in East Lansing.

The difference between Iowa and MSU, as it pertains to Northwestern, is that the Hawkeyes were a style problem for Wildcats, more so than a player-for-player talent mismatch. That’s the Spartans’ edge.

To win more than a game in a conference tournament — any conference tournament — or NCAA tournament, you need three guys rolling. Northwestern had a chance at that until JerShon Cobb’s season ended with foot injury.

Now it’s a team relying too much on Drew Crawford and Tre Demps for offense, and too much on Dave Sobolewski for minutes.

Northwestern starting winning this season with Sobolewski out with a concussion and Cobb starting at the point. Winning isn’t sustainable with the situation reversed. Against Iowa’s Mike Gesell, it’s doable. There’s nowhere to hide Sobolewski tonight.

I’ll have more at halftime tonight. In the meantime, here’s a Talkin’ Spartans video with Joe Rexrode joining me to preview tonight’s game, and a Big Ten tournament MSU tipoff, with my predictions for the weekend.

Enjoy the hoops.

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Assembling the best (not most deserving) All-Big Ten ‘actual’ team – POY Nik Stauskas isn’t starting

The All-Big Ten men’s basketball teams were announced Monday, the same five on the first team for both the 12 coaches and a panel of 24 beat writers, including MSU writers Joe Rexrode and Matt Charboneau. Good choices. No gaffes or surprises:

Nik Stauskas, Michigan (POY)
Gary Harris, Michigan State
Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
Terran Petteway, Nebraska
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

I’d have plugged in U-M’s Caris LeVert for Kaminsky. Yogi Ferrell was the other possible first-team choice.

All-conference teams aren’t meant to be real teams. They’re meant to be five deserving players regardless of position.

But, for an interesting exercise, let’s say the Big Ten was to send its best five and five reserves to play the best of other leagues, what’s the team?

It wouldn’t be the above five. There’s no point guard, athletic 4-man or capable defensive post.

It’s not an easy answer. This is a league with an abundance of talented wings, but short on do-it-all point guards.

Here’s my All-Big Ten “Actual” Team, were such a thing to exist:

PG: Yogi Farrell, Indiana
SG: Gary Harris, MSU
SF: Caris LeVert, U-M
PF: Adreian Payne, MSU
C: Noah Vonleh, Indiana

Reserves:

PG: Aaron Craft, Ohio State
SG: Nik Stauskas, U-M
SF: Roy Devyn Marble, Iowa
PF: Branden Dawson, MSU
C: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

One could make the argument the reserves could beat the starters, and that might be so. This is not a Big Ten with loads of high-end NBA talent, but it’s a league with terrific depth of talent and veteran stars.

In simply trying to assemble the best team to win games, this first five are all complete players, who can create their own shot and defend their position. I didn’t consider schools, or the need to represent a program — hence two players from in otherwise incredibly average (if that) Indiana squad. In fact, I didn’t realize Stauskas wouldn’t be among my starting five until I began assembling the team.

The second team is mix of prolific offense and top-tier role players, with Craft and Dawson there for defense, rebounding and intangibles to supplement the offense-first crew of Stauskas, Marble and Kaminsky.

Who’s your five? And your next five? Try to take emotion and school loyalty out of it, and think only of players and the sort of mesh and parts that would make the best team.

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MSU 38, Ohio State 36 – halftime musings: Spartans treating this game as important

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There isn’t much that’s tangibly immediately at stake for Michigan State this afternoon.

It’s either the No. 2 or 3 seed at the Big Ten tournament, also pending Wisconsin’s result tonight at Nebraska. Either way, the Spartans and Badgers would be in line for a semifinal matchup.

Those of us who cover MSU wouldn’t mind the 2 seed, to avoid the dreaded 9:30 p.m. Friday night tipoff and the brutal deadline that comes with it.

But for the Spartans, today is as much about continuing to climb away from February as fast as possible, steadily finding a groove as the postseason hits.

MSU is doing that, I think. Not a brilliant first half. Average defensively. But offensively, Adreian Payne looks like he always does in Columbus — like a pro, with 13 points, three assists, two blocks and two rebounds in 15 minutes.

The Spartans were resilient after one rough patch and have hit shots and attacked the basket.

There aren’t any games left of so little consequence. At this point, it’s steady progression or bust.

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