January 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Matt Charboneau

Michigan State victory over Indiana is another sign Spartans can handle the big stage

Tom Izzo on win over Indiana
Tom Izzo on win over Indiana: Tom Izzo talks about Michigan State's win over the Hoosiers on Saturday

Bloomington, Ind. — Keith Appling remembers being a sophomore, coming to Assembly Hall and having a hard time even hearing his coach.

“When we came here it was so loud we could barely even hear the plays,” Appling said.

On that February night, the Spartans had no idea how to handle the pressure and intensity from the Hoosiers fans. Michigan State was a talented team, but it had just one real leader in senior Draymond Green. The rest of the team hadn’t exactly been battle-tested. The result was predictable — the Spartans lost by 15 to the Hoosiers.

Two years later, things have changed. Michigan State is no longer a team full of wide-eyed youngsters, wondering what they have done to end up in such a hostile environment.

This year’s group has been through plenty and is about as full of veterans as you can get in college basketball these days. There are two seniors — Appling and Adreian Payne — as well as juniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson and a pair of sophomores — Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine — who play with maturity beyond their years.

Others chip in, but this core has quickly proven over the last few weeks that the big stage won’t defeat them. It sure didn’t on Saturday as they withstood several attempted comebacks by Indiana, only to thwart each push and eventually win going away, 73-56.

“We’ve been through it all,” Appling said. “We’re a veteran team. … When they have their runs and the crowd is getting loud, it doesn’t bother us at all. We’re pretty much used to it.”

A shot at it all

This group has played in plenty of big games the past two years and the results have been a mixed bag. They’ve beaten Kansas and Kentucky in two straight appearances in the Champions Classic and they won the Big Ten tournament title in 2012.

But they haven’t measured up in the NCAA Tournament, losing in the Sweet 16 each of the last two seasons.

However, this team is already starting to look different. Indiana coach Tom Crean can see it.

“Their maturity, their experience, their understanding of each other, that was a big, big difference in the game, the biggest difference in the game,” Crean said. “That's why they have a chance to win the national championship.”

The Spartans have already proven the big stage feels like a pretty comfortable place. They beat Kentucky in the second game of the season when the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the nation and the entire country was watching. They went on the road and rallied to beat a talented Texas team, then started Big Ten play with two straight road victories, capped with Saturday’s at Indiana.

It’s the type of thing previous teams might not have done, but it’s in the makeup of this group.

“We’ve been in this situation so many times,” Dawson said. “Just like against Kentucky and at Penn State where teams are going on a run. As a veteran team, it really doesn’t bother us. We stay together and pick each other up.”

Veteran savvy

In an era of college basketball when the one-and-done players are the show and sticking around for more than a season or two is seen sometimes as a sign of weakness, this Michigan State team is proving that gaining experience and some basketball savvy isn’t the worst thing.

Some teams will win with the superstar approach. Kentucky certainly did two years ago, but the Wildcats flamed out famously last season and didn’t even reach the NCAA Tournament.

For Michigan State, the formula hasn’t changed. Sure, coach Tom Izzo wants as much talent as the next guy and he’s gone after it. And there is no doubt Harris and Payne are among the best in the nation.

But the Spartans won’t win by handing the ball to one guy and saying, “Go win it for us.” They’ll do it by leaning on each other, picking up the slack when one guy is struggling or stuck on the bench with too many fouls.

“Our guys are veterans,” Izzo said.

And there’s not much they haven’t seen — except the bright lights of the Final Four.

That might happen yet.


Michigan State's Adreian Payne puts up a shot over the defense of Indiana's Will Sheehey. / Doug McSchooler / Associated Press