EAST LANSING - It was maybe the first time all year that Michigan State looked like a team.
They played like a team, acted like one, reacted like one.
A 19-point victory over 10-19 Iowa is no reason to plant a flag. But please understand, even at this late stage of the season, this Michigan State team is still under construction, still on the test track, still being tweaked, and yes, still improving.
Some may have hoped that Michigan State was a finished product after the 20-point loss at Iowa last month, or the 20-point loss to Purdue last weekend. But Izzo is still under the hood, still cranking the wrench.
During Wednesday night's 85-66 victory over Iowa, the Spartan bench provided a dominant push. Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green were limited factors for long portions of the game, but others stepped up, including freshmen Keith Appling (18 points) and Adreian Payne (8 points, 6 rebounds) in appetizing fashion. Like members of a team.
Michigan State went 7-for-14 from 3-point range, causing Spartan fans to take another look at the calendar on the wall, smile and wink.
With a big lead, Lucas and other Spartans tried to get a stress-relief shot or dunk or some sort of YouTube moment for beleaguered fallen hero Durrell Summers in the final minutes. They never quite got it lined up, and Summers didn't quite find his shot all night (going 3-for-8 from the field for 7 points, thanks to three tricky transition lay-ups), but Summers played harder than usual. He went hard for rebounds, gave effort on defense, ran the floor, tried to be scrappy, made pretty good decisions. For the team.
Garrick Sherman is back to finishing nicely around the rim. He was an opportunistic 3-of-4 for 7 points. He would have hit double figures if he had done better than 1-for-4 from the foul line. Don't look now, but Sherman is 12-for-15 from the field in his last seven games.
Derrick Nix went 5-for-5 from the foul line.
Through 29 games, Michigan State has disappointed those who picked the Spartans to be among the nation's Top 5. But we need to remember that this was just Game 7 of the season with a healthy Lucas.
And it was just Game 2 with a healthy Lucas, a reasonably healthy Green and Delvon Roe. The only other time all year that all three were healthy on the same night was the 75-57 victory over Penn State on Feb. 10. Green had a triple-double that night.
People look at MSU's record and see a lot of blemishes, and a 17-12 mark, and lots of first-half deficits in those 17 victories.
But the team that is going to play the remainder of March might be more like the 2-0 team than the 17-12 team. The 2-0 team being the one with a healthy Lucas, Green and Roe.
The word "healthy" is used loosely. Lucas suffered a mild ankle sprain during Sunday's blowout loss to Purdue. He missed practice on Monday. But he did not seem to have any lingering problems against Iowa, exploding late for 17 points on 5-of-12 shooting. He toned down some of the overzealous mistakes he made against Purdue, and was back to making contact, playing the percentages, hitting singles. That's what the team needs.
Green had a little better stamina and strength in this game, as he continues to recover from a mid-February battle with the flu. He was drained against Purdue.
But then Green went down with a mild ankle sprain early in the Iowa game. He limped to the locker room with a trainer, as MSU trailed in the early going. "I was watching the game in the locker room while they worked on me," Green said. "And I yelled a few times, about what was going on." Izzo looked to the heavens and cursed the basketball gods which have crapped an imperfect storm on him ever since he flirted with the Cavaliers, it seems.
But Green came back out, played on the ankle, and stuffed the stat sheet.
"I was a little concerned," Green said. "They asked me how it was, and even I didn't know until I went out there and tried to play on it. And it was okay."
Green had 12 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in just 16 minutes of play. In addition to the injury, he also got into foul trouble. But maybe that was best for this team on this night. It forced guys like Payne, Nix (9 points) and Appling to produce.
Green's "Magic Johnson" smile was back, fully lit-up.
Appling was loving basketball life, after going 7-of-8 from the floor, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range. His near-perfect 18-point performance was the best he's played on this court since going for 49 as a junior in the Class A state championship game, setting a state record.
"It's March, and that's a time when we're supposed to be winning around here," Appling said.
What about the freshman wall he's supposed to be hitting about now?
"My legs were kind of heavy in a couple of games, like Minnesota," he said. "But the sun is coming back out now."
Delvon Roe didn't make a field goal and had only two rebounds. But he found a way to contribute with four assists, including a pretty driving dish to Payne for a dunk.
Roe provided quality help as a weakside defender, using his brain, length and quickness to plug gaps momentarily while teammates recovered. He was a glue guy on this night, stepping aside and letting freshmen come to the fore while seniors were honored. And a team previously mired in a troubling season didn't merely survive and advance, but more accurately thrived and advanced.
It's just one win. Against a bad team. But because it's Michigan State, a program of two straight Final Fours, a quality outing at this time of year creates curiosity. What if we see Appling continue to hit more of these open jumpers he's been missing over the last four or five weeks?
What if Payne continues to play harder and harder, making bigger, more wide-ranging impacts? He wouldn't be the first freshman frontcourt man to give the Spartans a late-season face lift. Think Erazem Lorbek in the 2003 drive to the Elite Eight, and Green in the '09 run to the Final Four. Could Payne be next? Well, he played with more physical force than at any time all year at Minnesota last week. Then he shied away and played soft against Purdue. But after having some shame pointed his way, he answered with an energetic effort against Iowa. That's progress. For the team.
This team lacks depth, and is always just one injury or foul problem away from becoming offensively flat again. But we're not quite sure how good they can become if Lucas, Green and Roe stay healthy, while Payne and Appling continue to come around. That can be a competitive team in the NCAA Tournament, even if Summers never shines. But if he does ... well, that's the type of rise Izzo has grown to expect at this time of year. And the type of rise his opponents fear.
Summers Felt You
Izzo says when Summers misses a few perimeter shots he usually lets it carry over to other areas of the game. He stops giving effort on defense and the boards and makes shaky decisions with the ball. He fogs out.
But not on this night. His shot wasn't falling, but he was undeterred and offered a more consistent effort than usual in other areas of the game. Izzo can use that.
"We are starting to understand that if you are a good defensive team, it can make up for some offensive woes," Izzo said.
When Summers looked to the bench for feedback, Izzo nodded in approval.
And then after the game, during Senior Night ceremonies, we even saw Summers smile.
"The crowd," Summers said, "was big-time. That was big-time."
He felt you, Spartan fans. You made his night special. And he can't wait for Thursday's practice and a chance to get back to work.
He still thinks he's going to explode with a big game, and come all the way back. Izzo keeps telling him that's going to be the case, even if Izzo may not believe it himself.
"He took some good shots," Izzo said of Summers. "At least he moved a little better and got to the hole a little bit. I think he will feel better about it and take some steps."
Even if Summers doesn't make jump shots, if Summers is showing up on the boards, making deflections, keeping possessions alive, finishing in transition, Izzo can use that as part of a hand of healthy face cards he has had only this one time all year. The first game of March.
Decades Ago By Lucas Standards
In preparing for this game, Izzo took a long look at Iowa's 72-52 victory over Michigan State on Feb. 2. Izzo said that was the worst his team has played in a few years. The Spartans were coming off a loss to Michigan and still coming to grips with the dismissal of popular Korie Lucious. The Michigan State team that played that night sucked. But that was decades ago, by Izzo and Lucas standards.
Izzo: "I told Kalin yesterday, 'Guess who the worst defender was at Iowa?'
"He said, 'Me.'
"I said, 'Hands down.'
"But he just couldn't move," Izzo explained. "It was right around that time that he started to get better and better.
"In Kalin's case, he has grown up so much in this last year. And he is playing his best basketball."
He has been scoring more than ever, lately, because, frankly, the team was dangerously low on offensive options, especially when the flu hit Green. In Michigan State's last three games, Lucas was the only Spartan in double figures. That's not going to work. That's what made Appling's big game an eyebrow-raiser.
"I think Kalin was so happy a wing guy was making some shots," Izzo said.
MSU's shortages on offense allowed (required) Lucas to play without a conscience in recent weeks. He has scored 27, 26, 27, 20, 24, 14, 25, 18 and 23 prior to the 17 he scored against Iowa. This was the first time in 11 games that Lucas didn't lead the team in scoring. That's a good thing. Lucas needs some help. Getting it from Appling was huge.
But make no mistake, this is Lucas's team. We thought it was becoming Green's team at the end of last season. But not yet. Lucas wants to see some things through.
Izzo was so frustrated with Lucas as a leader last season that he kicked him out of practice in late December. Now, Izzo is commonly seen calling Lucas aside, and walking with him, away from the team, arms around his shoulders, and Lucas's arm around Izzo, coach talking and captain listening, and then captain talking and coach listening. They exchange ideas, observations. Lucas has become more than a speedy playmaker. For the first time, Izzo trusts him as a lieutenant.
"He has communicated better," Izzo said. "He calls more stuff. He does more stuff. He has risen above and for that you have to be proud and I am absolutely proud, and I said when I wasn't. I just wanted the kid to be a special player. He has gotten better at it. Maybe down the stretch he will be great at it."
Lucas knelt down and kissed center court at Breslin while checking out for the last time, just like Respert did when he started the tradition in '95, then carried on by Cleaves in '00, then Hutson, Bell, Thomas, Anagonye, Ballinger and every senior since then, including Kebler and Summers on this night.
Some day, Lucas may be back, looking up in the rafters as his No. 1 jersey joins Respert, Cleaves, Peterson, Green, Skiles, Magic, Kelser, Vincent.
"His stats probably make him (worthy) some day of a banner hanging (of Lucas's retired jersey)," Izzo said. "But I think there are games to win yet. That's what I keep telling him."
This Was Good Therapy For Them
The locker room was warm, fuzzy, friendly, festive again. There were families in the lobby, coffee, cookies, cuddles. It's not like this after every game. Izzo called for extra stuff in the lobby, for the parents, the brothers, the sisters, for his MSU Basketball Family.
"You have to make sure you come to a game next year," a basketball secretary said to Summers' grandmother.
Izzo hugged everyone during Senior Night ceremonies, beginning with the graduating managers. Then Mike Kebler and his parents. And Summers, and his mother and uncle. And Lucas, and his parents. He hugged them all. Cried a little bit. But the longest, longest, longest hug of the night was when Durrell's mom locked into Izzo and wouldn't let go, and told him some things, and he nodded, and she nodded while Izzo told her some things, as their embrace continued. Izzo's attempts to get the best out of Summers has been an educational journey. And it's clear that Durrell's mother approves of all the tough love.
During video highlights of each senior, the crowd knew the dunk was coming. The one when Summers slammed on and over Stanley Robinson's head at the 2009 Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit. That dunk is remembered as the iconic moment of that victory, and perhaps the entire run to the National Title game. Summers was just a sophomore, rocking his home town, making grown fans cry.
"That gets my blood going when I see that," Summers said. "Every time I see it, it reminds me of what we've done, what I've done and what we can do."
Summers' teammates were happy for him on this night. They were happy for Lucas and Keebler. The highlight reels of Lucas and Summers reminded us of what was once good. Keebler's highlights reminded us of how this team has had to reinvent and become resourceful, to the point of taking on an underdog persona.
The players seemed to bond more tightly together on this night than at any time all year. The underclassmen congratulated the seniors, applauding them as their framed jerseys were unveiled, and admired their video highlights.
This was perfect for this team. They needed this. It was good therapy for them. They have swung and missed so many times this year, and been criticized, left for dead. The pressure has been immense. But on this night, they won big, executed well, had fun, hugged, smiled, and did it with family all around. They retreated back to the necessities, the important things, and they drew strength from it.
A year ago, Izzo tried to create some chemistry by allowing Lucas and Green to plan a sleepover at Breslin. They all claim it kind of worked. A splintered team of guys who had a tendency to go their separate ways when away from the arena were forced to hang out together all night. They came out of it with an unexplainably stronger sense of unity.
Senior Night breaks up the regular season monotony. It's a reminder to the players that at some point they are going to graduate from the program and be handed back to their parents, back into the real world. It is also a reminder that this season might be over in three games. Or it could last deep into March. It's up to this team, starting now, to prolong things. And a night like this makes them want to prolong things. This was fun. This was a team.
It was half town hall meeting and half pep rally when Izzo took the microphone and addressed the Breslin Center crowd at the end of Senior Night.
"As you all know, it's been a little different year," Izzo told the crowd, most of them standing. "But on the other side of the coin, these guys have helped me learn a lot. The parents of these players have probably done more for me than I did for their kids. And I know it's not easy to go through what many people consider an average season at 17-12, which a lot of people would love to have, and, we're not done yet!"
"If I told you how many times I've been pronounced dead over the last 16 years...(laughter)...but we keep foolin' 'em. We've got a big game Saturday and everybody knows it's a big game Saturday."
"And I'd just like to say in closing: They (the video) told you about all the wins. You know everybody gets frustrated with everybody throughout time, but you had an opportunity throughout 103 wins here by this senior class, 5th or 6th most in the history of the school you love so much. You've had a chance to watch guys take you to Final Fours and play in front of more people than (any players) have ever been played in front of in the entire existence of basketball. This class is 11-3 in the NCAA Tournament, better than any senior class in all of America right now."
"So to Mike, Durrell and Kalin, all I can say is: I'm gonna be on your ass for another month I hope, so that's just the way it's gonna be."
Durrell's mother turned and looked back at Durrell, judgingly, as if to say, "He means YOU!"
Durrell gave a sheepish look back to her, as if to say, "I know, mom. I know."
"But we're going to find a way to win on Saturday, get you back where you belong in the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully do some damage. Thank you very much."
Izzo's upbeat bravado met a thunderous ovation.
Being on the bubble in early March and having to scrape and claw their way into the NCAA Tournament might be better for this team's attention span and psychological state in preparation for The Big Dance, better than being, say, a third-place team in the Big Ten, just waiting around in the final weeks for the tournaments to start. MSU has to earn its way in, by performing and punching the clock, with the sun coming up.
"I do sense that there was a tournament feeling in the practices and the locker room," Izzo said. "Yesterday, I took them all upstairs to stand by the door and I said, 'It's March 1 and the sun is shining. March at Michigan State is an important month.' I could sense then that there was a feeling of, 'Yeah.' You know?"
Yes, we know.
"And even the former players started calling in March," Izzo said. "We don't have delusions of grandeur that we are going to make some real significant run but in a sick sort of way it's kind of nice to just be trying to get into the tournament. That used to be a real exciting time when we got in, around here. It's unfortunately not that way anymore, but this year it will be.
Join Comp on The Final Fourum message board."And you know what? If it is, and we do, I think there is going to be a sense of urgency and a sense of excitement. That's the only problem with winning a lot is you kind of don't give the players a chance to really enjoy everything. And I think they would really enjoy this. I'm excited about the opportunity."
Excited, once again, to coach a team.