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March 24, 2013

DotComp: You know what you saw

AUBURN HILLS - It's so easy for a broadcast team to misunderstand Derrick Nix. It's so easy for a television audience to misunderstand him, and to misunderstand this team, and this program, and Tom Izzo.

For those who really, really follow Michigan State basketball, and have been taking in the story lines for decades, all 18 volumes of The Izzo Era, including the various chapters of the 2013 season, you know what Izzo wanted Nix to become in the spring and summer, and how Nix fell, and how Izzo punished Nix, and how Nix apologized to fans, to the public, to the university, to everyone, and how Izzo knew Nix deserved to stay on the team, needed to stay on the team.

If you have followed the chapters this season, you heard Nix tell Michigan State fans on his Senior Day that the program has given much more to him than he has given it

You heard Izzo, in his 18th year as head coach at Michigan State, say that the party is at his house when Nix graduates in May with a degree is sociology.

If you've watched all the seasons, you know that in Volume 15 Nix started as a freshman for a Michigan State team that went to the Final Four. He didn't play a lot of minutes in most games, but he started, and he was a championship piece, and he never blinked. He was big, he was brave.

You know that in Volume 16, he punched Draymond Green in practice. He punched him hard, knocked him down, opened a cut. When Izzo kicked Nix out of practice for it, Green went out into the hallway, dragged Nix back in and told Izzo that they needed the whole team together for the rest of practice because there was too much to work on.

Green's selflessness resonated with Nix. Nix felt bad. He punched Green for personal reasons, not for team reasons. There is a difference at Michigan State. One is acceptable, the other is not. But Green stood up as a blossoming leader and understood the mistake. Nix never forgot.

You know that in Volume 16, Nix considered leaving Michigan State. Izzo left him home in East Lansing rather than take him with the team to a tournament in Hawaii. Nix pouted and his weight ballooned. A freshman named Adreian Payne had arrived and was cutting in on Nix's minutes. Payne didn't know it, but his talent made Nix feel insecure.

Nix hasn't always done a great job of processing his feelings. But man, does he have feelings.

If you've been following the episodes, you know that in Volume 16, when Izzo was considering the head coaching job with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nix showed up at a fan gathering outside of Breslin. He was the only player there. Players were told by university officials to stay away from media, and not to attend the fan gathering. But Nix sometimes has trouble doing as he is told. He showed up. He voiced his feelings for Izzo. Just seven months after threatening to leave the team, Nix didn't want the coach to leave him. He was afraid and he cried. When Izzo found out about it, he cried. And Nix had a war partner for life.

In Volume 18, if you've been following along, you know that Izzo has complained that his team is without a centralized, vocal leader. Izzo likes his guys. The chemistry is good. The talent is good. That's all enough to have a good team. But it's not enough to have a great team. Izzo knows greatness. In order to be great, Izzo says he needs a player who will challenge teammates, criticize teammates, maybe shove a teammate, for the good of a team.

If you have read the chapters, you know that Izzo believes strife in the huddle, or in the locker room, can be a good thing - sometimes a necessary thing.

You know that Izzo hasn't seen enough constructive strife from this year's team.

This year, in Volume 18, Izzo has complained about not having a pack leader. It's one of the things that separates what this team is from what it has the potential to become.

And that's why Izzo hasn't given up on trying to squeeze some late-developing leadership out of Nix.

"Coach tells me every day just make sure I'm having the guys ready in the hotel and the locker room," Nix said.

That's a new development - telling Nix to get the guys ready in the hotel. Izzo has long wanted Nix to develop into the team leader. He's the oldest player on the team. He's been a champion. He might have the best basketball I.Q. on the team. And he has the punching power to command respect. He has so many of the elements. But he hasn't been comfortable with leading.

Izzo prodded and encouraged Nix to become a leader last spring. Nix wasn't ready.

Izzo pushed again in September and October. Nix still wasn't ready.

Izzo gave him some room, let him grow up a little more.

Now, Izzo sees an opportunity to shove Nix into a leadership role once again. Izzo sees that Nix is getting nostalgic about the fact that his college basketball days are nearly over. Izzo sees desperation in Nix. He sees teammates starting to rally around Nix, trying to lengthen his career.

"For him, being this is his last go-around, we feed off him and we look up to him like he's our big brother," Branden Dawson said at the press conference podium after the victory over Valparaiso.

Just minutes later, Nix poked fun at Dawson for a mistake he made during the game when he went for a steal and gave up a lay-up. They laughed. Izzo smiled and watched.

"I like the fact Derrick can have a little fun up here because it's been a grinding year for us," Izzo said.

A month or so ago, Nix came up to Izzo and said one of those brief, profound, human things that Nix says.

"It's hard," Nix told Izzo.

"What is?" Izzo said.

"To lead," Nix said.

'You Have To Help Me'

Nix is a complicated guy, a vulnerable guy. The other guys love him. That's why they ran and jumped on him on his Senior Day, in a way that Spartan players have never mobbed a teammate.

You know throughout all of the volumes, chapters and episodes that Nix has battled weight problems. He is currently conquering them. He's in the best shape of his career, and he's playing very good basketball for a very good team - a team capable of winning it all.

If you've seen all the episodes in Volume 18, you know that Nix took Izzo aside at halftime on his Senior Day and said, "You have to help me."

"Help you what?" the coach said.

Nix had learned that Michigan lost to Indiana, thereby eliminating Michigan State from the championship race. Nix was mad, sad.

Nix told Izzo he needed help staying motivated, staying composed for the rest of the game. Nix knows Izzo cares. Nix knows he can reveal his weaknesses to him.

Izzo was surprised that it bothered Nix so much. Izzo liked it.

Little 5-foot-8 Izzo had to support big, 280-pound Nix. Nix knew he could lean on his coach. He just had to warn Izzo that he was teetering. Izzo supported him. Nix knew he would.

"I've grown with Derrick," Izzo said. "Derrick's grown with me."

Nix felt more guilt for losing the Big Ten title than any of us knew. After Michigan State beat Michigan in February, Nix made comments claiming that he and his teammates were as good or better than some of the Indiana and Michigan players that were getting more hype as NBA prospects. He was trying to help himself and his teammates get some credit. But his comments came off as being disrespectful toward Indiana players and Michigan players.

When Indiana beat Michigan State the following week, Nix - and others - felt that the Hoosiers rallied around one disrespected player, Cody Zeller, and it may have served as a little extra edge in pushing Indiana to a victory at Michigan State.

You can argue that words in a news story have zero impact on a basketball game. But Izzo felt they did. He let Nix know about it. Nix felt bad.

Two weeks later, Nix gave a confessional of sorts while on the Tom Izzo radio show: "I started saying some crazy stuff and made some people mad, and that's the reason we didn't win the Big Ten. They affected us a lot. They did. That's all I'm going to say. Those comments affected us a lot."

The failure to win the title, possibly due in part to those comments, still affects him.

If you have watched the most recent episodes, you know that with six minutes to go in Michigan State's second round victory over Valparaiso, Nix put his arm around Izzo on the sideline and told the coach, "You know, this is one of the last times I'm going to do this."

Izzo had made the decision to sit Nix for the rest of the game, so that he and other starters could sit and watch the end of the blowout victory. But Izzo sent Nix to the scorer's table to check back into the game, and enjoy a few more minutes of college life.

"There are some times you see him out there he almost looks sad," Izzo said. "The end is here and he doesn't have an answer where he's going next."

This is the first time in Nix's life that he doesn't know what he's doing two months from now.

"When he was in junior high, he knew where he was going," Izzo said. "When he was in high school, he committed to us early, and he knew where he was going.

"Every year here, he has known what he was doing next and what was expected of him, and in a round and about way, he has come through."

But he hasn't been able to do it without the coaches. They pushed him, prodded him, motivated him to lose weight, to become a better player, a better student than he ever knew he could be.

But now he is a senior. The only one on this team. The next time Michigan State loses, he is done. Just him.

And this summer, for the first time, the coaches won't be there to push him anymore. He'll be on his own to find his way to the next steps of his career, likely in basketball, possibly overseas. It will be up to him to keep the weight off. There is fear.

"All of a sudden, he's almost scared sometimes, like a big teddy bear, like, 'What am I going to do?'" Izzo said. "Well, play well and maybe that will help determine what you're going to do."

Izzo seemed to have a similar chat with Nix in the final minute of Saturday's victory over Memphis. He put his left arm around Nix and pointed out into the seats of The Palace with his right arm, and said something to his only senior. Nix looked out in the direction Izzo was pointing and nodded.

What did Izzo tell Nix? They aren't saying.

'That's When I Knew We Had It'

If you've watched all the Volumes of the Izzo Era, you've heard Izzo speak nostalgically about days when Antonio Smith would motivate teammates by threatening them physically. You've heard about the time when Mateen Cleaves choked Morris Peterson in the locker room at halftime of the Regional Finals in 2000, right here in this same building. They had to pull Cleaves off of him.

If you've seen all the episodes, the ones with Nix crying, the ones with Cleaves choking people, the ones with Izzo saying he needs more guys to choke people, the ones with Izzo cutting down nets, then you know it wasn't a bad thing when, during a time out midway through Michigan State's victory over Memphis on Saturday, Nix picked up a towel and threw it at teammate Keith Appling. He threw it at him hard, mean, with harsh words. Appling picked up the towel with a jerk and threw it back at Nix. Mean and hard.

Izzo leaned forward and pushed Appling back. Someone pushed Nix back. And an instant later, Izzo resumed drawing up x's and o's, after taking a second glance to make sure Nix wasn't going completely haywire.

Former Spartan great Charlie Bell was sitting behind the bench at the time. He had been in the locker room for some of the Smith and Cleaves tag team choke slams. Bell saw Saturday's towel incident, the volatility, the passion.

He knows Appling and Nix have been friends since 10th grade. He knows Appling and Nix led Detroit Pershing to a state championship.

He knows that there are few people in the world who can throw a towel at Appling, yell something mean, and get away with it. Nix is one of them. Nix knew he could get away with it, and stay friends - the same way Cleaves could stay friends with Pete.

Nix hasn't always channeled his emotional behaviors toward collective goals. But he's starting to do it now. When he punched Draymond, it wasn't for the good of the team. But when he threw that towel at Appling, it was for the good of the team. And Izzo likes it. That's why Izzo so easily and happily went right back to x's and o's and scheming, just seconds after the towel incident. And everyone leaned in closer, more intently, for instructions on how to go back out there and kick Memphis's ass.

Bell sat back in his chair at The Palace and chuckled.

"That's when I knew we had this game," Bell would say later.

Bell knows this program, this team, this coach, and this arena for that matter.

"If you're asking about Nix in the huddle, let's blame The Palace," Izzo said. "When I walk down that hallway and into that Detroit Pistons locker room here, I remember walking down that thing when we were down 13 or 15 to Syracuse or Iowa State, wondering what I was going to tell my team. And then I walk into the locker room and Cleaves is all over his best friend in the world, Morris Peterson, and we practically have to pry him off of Pete. That was 13 years ago and probably one of the most famous things that has happened to me."

Well, it's only famous because he told us about it. Cleaves and Peterson laugh about it now. Heck, they laughed about it then - after all the nets were cut down.

That's Izzo's program. And when friends are battling friends over basketball standards and expectations and accountability, that's when this program is as dangerous as any in the whole damn country.

Don't blame announcers if they didn't understand during Saturday's broadcast. Don't blame them if they said the altercation was a problem, and something that is less than ideal at this stage. Don't blame them. They don't know. It's a Spartan thing.

Nix said he lashed out at Appling about playing proper ball screen defense. Nix and Appling have to work in tandem in order to play air-tight ball screen defense. Sometimes they step on each others' toes a little bit. This time, Nix stepped harder.

"It was just miscommunication with the ball screen and stuff, so we went at it," Nix said. "That's my best friend. I love him to death. I treat him like a little brother. We're over it. We won the game and let it go."

After the towel incident, Michigan State came out of the huddle and played its best basketball of the day, and turned back a Memphis surge with a game-changing run of their own.

Just because Nix is growing desperately motivated here at his end, just because he threw a towel at his friend does not mean he will become the effective leader Izzo and Michigan State needs next weekend at Indianapolis. But it's clear to Izzo that this team has a stronger pulse than it had two or three weeks ago.

"That's what I meant about needing to be a player-coached team - I need players to get on players sometimes," Izzo said. "Sometimes, though, Nix doesn't know exactly how. He's trying to please me and he doesn't know exactly how.

"But trust me, it was fun. Players were a lot more vocal today. I mean, I just loved that."

He saw something good simmering on Thursday, after the Valparaiso game. Izzo had gotten on Adreian Payne's tail for a few turnovers, and a missed box out on a free throw. Izzo ripped him hard. Izzo didn't think Payne was reacting well to the criticism.

But then in the locker room after the game, Payne stood up and began speaking to the team. Payne blamed himself for not maintaining enough focus.

"After the Valpo game I felt that I didn't play as well as I should have, and so I came in and I apologized to the team about my play," Payne said. "And I told them that I couldn't have that many turnovers for us to advance in the tournament, and I told them I wouldn't let that happen again.

"So I tried to work on that and watch film and get better."

Four-teen points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots.

Michigan State 70, Memphis 48.

The game was actually closer than that score indicates. But every time the Tigers crept too close, Payne beat them back like a protective father.

When Payne spoke after the Valpo game, Izzo got that feeling he gets on the inside when he knows the stew is starting to bubble.

Payne, who has skills unlike any 6-foot-9 athlete in the country, is in the final stages of becoming completely programmed. And Nix is getting there too.

When you have Nix throwing objects at Appling, and Appling throwing them back, and when you have Payne speaking up and volunteering to take blame, vowing redemption, and then going out and backing it up with an All-America type of performance, and when you have close games suddenly erupting into 22-point victories, and you come out of it knowing that there are still many areas to improve on, well, that's when Izzo knows that the remaining chapters of Volume 18 have the potential to pack the type of shining magic we dream of every March.

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