East Lansing, MI
There are a lot of things you could call the game tonight here at the Breslin Center. Many of them are not family friendly and therefore will not be used, but this one is accurate and safe: Butt Whoopin. In every facet of the game, from the way the managers filled the water bottles to the coaching and the play the Spartans diminished the Michigan Wolverines to the role of insignificant. It was brutal to watch no matter what team you rooted for.
After the game UM head coach John Beilein said, “Michigan State really has an excellent team. I have believed that all year long. That is the worst we have played in a long long time and you can credit Michigan State for that.”
Gracious in defeat the Wolverines head man went on to say, “They were very good. We couldn’t get anything,” and, “Somehow we didn’t play poised.” But oh no, he wasn’t done. He concluded with, “We have to learn a lot from this game.”
You can hate your rival as Izzo said this week, but for any intelligent person it is hard to dislike Beilein. He is a class act and showed it in the post-game. His Wolverines could do nothing right. They shot 39%, had 16 turnovers and only six assists. Only two players scored in double digits (Trey Burke 18 and Nik Stauskas 10) and they managed only 30 rebounds to the Spartans 41.
A lot of people will talk about the MSU offense, but that WAS NOT the story of this game. Keith Appling summed up what won this matchup for the Spartans in a nice simple sentence. “Coach always says defense wins championships and we wanted to start out with key stops.”
The quiet Appling had an amazing game. He was tremendous on defense, while having 11 points, seven rebounds and one assist in 32 minutes of play. He said of the game, “Michigan is a very good team.” He added, “We got a good win against a pretty good team.”
With such a dominating win the Spartans can’t get cocky. There are six games left in the Big Ten regular season and the Spartans have a great shot at a title. They won’t get it if they get arrogant and Appling was already warning against that. He said, “We are a little surprised, but we are going to take it for what it is.” He added, “It says a lot, but at the end of the day we have to remain consistent. If we keep playing like this, the sky is the limit.”
Almost more relieved than happy Izzo kept it simple after the game. He said, “The stat that matters most to me is we had eight turnovers and they had 16.” He went on to say, “The crowd was just awesome.”
He is right. Not since Illinois came into the Breslin with an undefeated team and Dee Brown running the show under Bruce Weber has the crowd been this good. In fact Izzo said, “The crowd was just awesome. I sent them an email to make sure they cheer more for us. I’m sure they booed some, but they did a great job for us. The whole place, the older people, the younger people were great.”
Izzo was also cautious. With a lot of season left he doesn’t want his team or this fan base to get over excited. He said, “Don’t think that is the real Michigan team because it is not.” Even then he had to admit that, “We did a lot of things right.”
Izzo is piecing together one of his best seasons at the helm of MSU. His coaching job has been nothing short of sensational and evidenced by the play of his three true freshmen, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello. Izzo has masterfully skilled them under his tutelage. Costello had eight points and six rebounds in 11 big minutes. Gary Harris led the Spartans with 17 and added four boards and both three assists and steals.
Denzel Valentine shows off perhaps the best coaching of the three. Being a point guard for Izzo isn’t easy, but it can reap big rewards and it is. Valentine came off the bench to play 24 monster minutes. He also had seven points, nine rebounds and four assists. Add to that he is showing off the vision and awareness that Izzo has carved from him and unyieldingly chiseled out of him.
With all that Izzo has done this year, his best work could be with Valentine. In the locker room after the Valentine looked almost relieved more than happy. I asked if he felt good and he said, “Oh yah, I am feeling good.” Being a point guard for Izzo isn’t easy, but once you get the understanding of what he wants, it can be rewarding…very rewarding!
Izzo is not one to heap unearned praise so when he said after the game that, “Our freshman played pretty good,” that was saying a lot. He should have taken a moment to pat himself on the back.
He stated what his face clearly showed. “Very proud of my team and staff. Keep it in perspective. We probably played one of our best games in three years and they probably played their worst.”
Usually the glass half empty Izzo couldn’t stay that way tonight. On this one night, in this place he added, “We played about as well as we can play…not sure we are as good as we played.”
As is the par for the course this season the Spartans couldn’t avoid the injury bug. Branden Dawson went down and even left the court to head to the locker room in the second half. Izzo said of his injury that Dawson, “Got hit in the nose and got hit in the lip. He was in the locker room after the game. I do think he is going to be O.K they don’t seem to think it is a concussion.”
So with this win the Spartans record for the season continues to improve. They now find themselves #8 in the nation with a 21-4 (10-2) record. A great accomplishment. As long as they take care of business on Saturday, the 16th of February in Lincoln, Nebraska, they have set themselves up for a major tussle with the #1 in the nation: The Indiana Hoosiers.
That game is one week from tonight at 7PM on ESPN and could go a long way in deciding the Big Ten regular season title.