West Lafayette, Indiana
Michigan State has struggled all year, fighting for every point and every inch. They came in #8 in the country. 19-4 (8-2) and with a Michigan loss at Wisconsin earlier in the day a chance to get take first place alone in the nation’s best conference: the Big Ten.
Not tonight. No struggle to report here. They took Purdue to the woodshed. The Spartans came in and despite injuries, foul trouble and being on the road they didn’t beat Purdue, they whipped their butt. It was a dominating performance. The Spartans played with their second string for a huge portion of the game and treated the Boilermakers like a junior varsity squad. Instead of the Boilermaker motto of, “Boiler Up” someone should have said, “Boilers Show Up.”
Once proud Mackey Arena had fans calling their own players, “Idiots,” and clamoring for their coach who is a former player to, “Go to Missouri.” How this place has fallen from a once MECA of college basketball to where it is today is for another story on another day. This was about MSU.
The 2010 Tom Izzo team should have been 20-4. They weren’t, but this team is. This team has tied for the second best start in Izzo’s illustrious history at MSU. The 2010 team should have won a nation title, and they would have if they could have listened. They didn’t. That falls on the coaches and the players from that era, but this improbable team, with essentially no leadership player is stepping up.
How? I asked Nix who said, “We know we aren’t as good as it looks. We may not have a great leader, but we have good chemistry. We just want to stay humble, shut up and take every game one at a time. Some say that, but we really mean it. I understand that now.”
How far has this team come and more importantly Derrick Nix? “We, I should say me, are paying attention to details now. You can say that a lot of things make a great team, but listening I have learned might be the biggest.”
Izzo can’t hide it. He had a gleam in his eye as we walked out together. I asked him if this was a 20-4 team and he said, “I don’t know. What do you think?” When I told him yes I added, “This team is listening,” and he lit up. “You’re right.”
Izzo can be tough to play for. He can be ornery, tough, moody and a lot of other adjectives, but no one, NO ONE can argue he knows the game and this group is keying in on that. Dare I say that this team is hungry? They can smell it. Blood is in the water and there is a Big Ten title ripe for the taking and maybe more.
Izzo said, “I must admit it, this was a big game for us. I was really concerned about this game. Our game plan was to go inside. I think that was a character win for us.” Yes, that was MSU head coach Tom Izzo, almost giddy.
If that doesn’t convince you that the Spartans are on fire this will. Izzo said after the game that, “I am amazed with our start, but I know our deficiencies. One game at a time.”
For those of you older than seven you remember when Mackey was loud and raucous. Tonight it wasn’t. The fans spent more time talking about their own team and, “IU” sucks than the Spartans. Still it was a great basketball game if you are a Spartan.
This was just what the doctor ordered. Purdue shot 48% and MSU 49%. MSU had nine turnovers and the Boilers added 14. MSU won the battle of the boards by a 31-27 margin, but none of those stats tells the story. These numbers do.
15, 8, 13 and 24. Have any idea what those are? Significant minutes for Russell Byrd, Alex Gauna, Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine. All four played significantly while Appling had only 27 and Harris had 24.
Tom Izzo swears his team didn’t say one work about the Michigan loss prior to the game. I believe him. Now all of their attention turns to the Wolverines. On Tuesday they will tip it off at 9 PM at the Breslin. This Spartan team can grind and scratch and claw.
Will the Spartan Nation give then a home court advantage like the Hoosier faithful give IU? From the Izzone on the top and bottom to the famed silent “Green Seats” will the Spartan Nation will the Spartans to a big win like the Hoosier Nation did in Bloomington.
Time to take off your doubting hat. Time to pick up a pom-pom and buy in Spartan Nation. This team is good. Potentially really good. They need you, and they have a legitimate shot to do what the 2010 team could not.
Izzo and I agreed that he has had more talented teams. We also agreed that this one has a shot to supersede them because they play like a team.
They listen. They play hard. They grind and they fight. They are not UK of last year, but they are MSU of this year and the Spartan Nation can help them be special.
As Izzo hugged his daughter Rocky after the game, he looked at his players giving interviews and just shook his head. The man who self-confessed that he loves drama and turmoil has something else. A group of young men, void of a leader, but with big ears asking their Hall of Fame coach to take them somewhere.
It is time to stop saying they are leaderless. They don’t have the on court general that Izzo craves, but they do have a pretty good one on the sidelines. He is grouchy. He is cantankerous and he can peel paint off the locker room wall. For now he can’t hide his smile, he is the pied piper and he wants to take them to Atlanta.
He can do it. He needs them to keep listening and the Spartan Nation to make Breslin once again a feared place. They aren’t good enough to do it alone, but they are good enough. Buckle up. Seven games left in the regular season and then its Izzo time. Don’t believe me?
You weren’t in the locker room and you didn’t see that smile.