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March 14, 2014

Defense, fastbreak in gear for semifinals

INDIANAPOLIS - Tom Izzo sought to pick up his team's pace in the Spartans' opening performance of the 2014 Big Ten Tournament, and the Michigan State head coach was satisfied with the results.

No. 22-ranked Michigan State continued to show improved zip in the transition game, and this time benefited from better team defense in dispatching Northwestern 67-51, Friday night in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.

The third-seeded Spartans (24-7), who lost three of four games heading into the contest, will face No. 12 Wisconsin in one semifinal on Saturday. Wisconsin (26-6) blew out Minnesota, 83 57, on Friday.

"We felt pushing the ball and crashing the boards were two things we needed to do," Izzo said. "We did a decent job until the last five or six minutes and gave up some shots. Other than that I thought we played pretty well and pushed it pretty well."

Branden Dawson
had 16 points and Gary Harris
added 13 points to lead Michigan State.

The game marked the fourth time the Spartans have had all of its players available since a slew of early-, mid- and late-season injuries perpetually left Michigan State at less than full strength.

"It seems like we're a lot more in synch, we're getting our rhythm back now that everybody is back healthy," said Keith Appling. "We just have to continue to do what we're doing and see what happens."

Izzo was encouraged by the progress.

"We have played a couple of good games, and one average game and one poor game in the four games that we have had everybody back," Izzo said. "So are we making progress? Yes we are, but tomorrow will be a good test to see where we are."

On Friday, Michigan State played more of a sagging, helping style of defense, similar to the way Izzo has taught it in past years, rather than attempts at aggressive half court play in recent weeks which have led to inconsistency and leaks in dribble penetration.

Michigan State held the Wildcats to 40 percent shooting while registering eight blocked shots and four steals.

"We are doing a little bit better job of playing the kind of defense we want because we are back switching some things and doing some things, but it's one game," Izzo said. "We were really good defensively for three-fourths of that game. In the first half, we made some plays offensively, but defensively was the difference in this team and the one that I've been coaching for the last month.

"Let's not kid ourselves. We are going to be a work in progress with every game that we play."

The Spartans have not won consecutive games since mid-January when Dawson broke his hand on a table during a temper tantrum and was lost for five weeks.

AUDIO: Izzo Post-Game Press Conference

MORE IZZO AUDIO: Outside the locker room

Against the Wildcats, Dawson was probably the best Spartan on the floor, with nine rebounds - including six on the offensive glass.

"He was a big key," Izzo said. "He was switching, talking. He was covering up for people. I think that was one of the best games Branden has played here."

Said Harris: "With a guy like Branden Dawson playing like he's been playing, it makes it easy for everybody else so we were all having fun. It all started on the defensive end and that gave us energy for the offensive end. We haven't been playing the defense we know we could have been playing. That's been our emphasis all week, just communicating and being in the right positions and helping each other out. We did a great job of that today and we have to continue that for tomorrow."

Dawson was 8-of-12 from the field including three mid-range jumpers.

"He is starting to shoot the ball better, but he can defend a lot of people," Izzo said. "We can switch with him, we can do some good things with him. Branden playing well helps.

"It's kind of strange," Izzo added. "I told him God might have taken his hand away but he gave him a jump shot. He is actually shooting the ball so much better since he has come back. It kind of reminds me of my golf game - when you come back and you are just concentrating, you do it real well early. I think he is concentrating harder on the form of his shot because everything is not perfect and it has helped him.

"But the difference in Branden was his defense and his energy and then he made things happen on the break. He did hit a couple of nice shots but I think he felt better about himself because he did other things better."

The Spartans and Badgers met only one time this season, with Wisconsin winning at the buzzer, 60-58, on a Traevon Jackson jumper. Dawson and Appling did not play in that game due to injuries.

"It was a great game down there in Madison and I think it's going to be fun to play against them," Harris said. "Now that we have everyone back we are looking forward to it and we have to continue to put our emphasis on the defensive end."

Harris was 3-of-20 in that game, in perhaps the lowest point of his college career.

"I just missed shots, basically," Harris said. "But now we get to play them again."

Wisconsin is regarded as a candidate for a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State wants to prove it has progressed enough to play with the best in the country.

"It's a typical Bo (Ryan) team but even better because I think those guys are shooting the ball better and it should be a heck of a game," Izzo said of the Badgers. "They're playing so good right now. The difference is the Wisconsin we played before wasn't making any shots. (Ben) Brust is making shots now and (Frank) Kaminsky is putting it on the floor and doing a better job."
"It's definitely going to be a dog fight," Appling said. "We just have to look to rebound and continue to get our break going."

Appling was excited about progress in the transition game.

"I haven't pushed the ball that fast in I don't know how long," Appling said. "We're a better team when we get out in the open court, myself specifically.

"Definitely on the defensive end and pushing the ball and getting our transition game going, I think I definitely took a step forward, especially from where I was."

"Keith came out pushing it and kept everybody involved," Payne said.

Notes & Observations

  • Adreian Payne notched blocks No. 134 and 135 to surpass Drew Naymick to become Michigan State's all-time leading shot blocker.

    But Payne battled foul trouble and played only 19 minutes, scoring 5 points to go with 6 rebounds. He was 2-of-8 from the field with four turnovers.

  • With Payne in foul trouble, Costello logged more than 10 minutes for the first time in four games. In 15 minutes of play, Costello had 5 points and 4 rebounds. He came off he bench and added some pace to the transition game, but ended on a sour note with three fouls in a span of three minutes.

  • Keith Appling had a solid, measured performance with 6 points in 24 minutes. He had 2 assists and 3 turnovers. Izzo liked the way Appling pushed the ball in transition.

  • With Appling playing less, Travis Trice played a little more - equalling Appling's 24 minutes, and it was due entirely to the blowout. Izzo wants to play Trice a little more and Appling a little less, until and unless Appling regains complete confidence in his shot - a problem that has carried over to create issues in other parts of the senior's game.

    Trice had 9 points, one assist and no turnovers on 3-of-7 shooting. Trice was 3-of-5 from 3-point range.

    More Post-Game Analysis from Jim Comparoni

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