Senior center Derrick Nix led Michigan State with 17 points and nine rebounds in Saturday's loss to Ohio State, but could be one of the keys to a deep NCAA Tournament run for the Spartans. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
Chicago — Derrick Nix wasn't letting Aaron Craft swoop in for another clean layup. No way. So the big fella did what big fellas do and he grabbed the Ohio State guard, and the flagrant foul was costly.
It wasn't the smartest play or the desired ending to Michigan State's Big Ten tournament run. But it was symbolic as the Spartans prepare for another NCAA Tournament — to get past them, you'll have to get past the big guys.
Nix took the blame for the 61-58 loss to Ohio State Saturday, and that's fine. But if Michigan State is ready to unleash another March run, likely starting in Auburn Hills, it'll have to knock aside bodies to do it. That means more Nix and Adreian Payne, and fewer frantic forays by Keith Appling.
The Spartans have most of the necessary pieces, they just sometimes use them out of order. Here was Craft, the rosy-cheeked irritant, again making the Spartans blush. He was tremendous, with 20 points and nine assists, while Appling tried too hard to answer with his own drives. The junior guard remains an enigma, talented and tenacious, but a questionable on-court decision-maker.
One decision should be easy, especially now that the Spartans are about to face teams other than Big Ten bruisers. They need to run the offense through one of the toughest inside tandems in the country and defy opponents to get in their way. Nix is 6-foot-9 and every ounce of 270 pounds. Payne is 6-10 with arms that never end.
So while Nix was beating himself up for the flagrant foul, he also suggested the Spartans need to do a better job of beating people up near the basket.
Do you feel you guys are hard to stop inside?
"Yes, I do," Nix said, without a smile.
Do you need to pound it inside more?
"Yes, we do."
Senior speaks up
It's never as simple as it sounds, but that does start with Appling. Now that the Spartans are about to be released from college basketball's most-powerful conference to face fresh faces in the Tournament, they're likely to encounter opponents unaccustomed to such interior strength. It's a rare advantage they must exploit, one of the issues that troubled Tom Izzo after the loss to the Buckeyes.
"We played OK, we played hard, but we didn't play very smart," Izzo said. "That's a major disappointment to me. That's an embarrassment to me. We just did not do the things you need to do to win big games."
The defense can be stifling at times. And the offense can be puzzling at times. As the torturous Big Ten season unfolded, the Spartans banged into bodies every time they turned. Now, they can't turn away from it.
Nix had 17 points (6-of-8 shooting) against the Buckeyes. Payne had 12 (3-of-5 shooting). Appling scored 16 (6-of-17 shooting). I can do math, and I count the big guys with only 13 shots, hitting nine of them. It's great when an inside duo shoots 9-of-13, but that probably means there should have been a greater effort to make it, oh, 15-for-22.
As the lone senior in the rotation, Nix wants this badly, and is grabbing for more and more. He was upset at halftime of the tournament opener against Iowa, before Michigan State rallied. And his emotions bubbled over against the Buckeyes, as he punctuated a couple baskets with colorful screams.
"I played my heart out," Nix said. "I'm giving it all I got. I ain't saving nothing. It's kind of scary, but you gotta just keep cherishing the moment."
As he talked, Nix rubbed a welt above his left eye, courtesy of a hard foul by Evan Ravenel that led to a three-point play. That sliced Ohio State's lead to 57-56 with less than two minutes remaining, before Nix made his emphatic grab of Craft.
Nix's size makes him valuable, even if his offensive moves can be, uh, inartistic. He's shooting 51 percent from the field and a much-improved 72 percent on free throws. Payne is far more gifted offensively, and as he's developed 3-point range, he strays from the paint a bit.
But Payne and Nix still take a beating, and wouldn't mind taking even more.
"When we use our inside game, then go outside, we're pretty hard to beat," Nix said. "Once we get it down there, (the defense) rallies to the ball and makes it hard to score. So we just gotta try to get it out and pray people hit shots."
Stick to the plan
Appling heaved some prayers in this one, and so did Gary Harris. But Harris is plagued by an ailing shoulder that popped out briefly again, and it affects his shooting. The plan was to get the ball to Nix and Payne more, and that's where Appling has to be more savvy and disciplined.
But the plan isn't as easy to pull off when familiar opponents know what's coming.
"It's hard when you've got good players and even teams (in the Big Ten), and you know what each other's gum is," Izzo said. "I'm really looking forward to playing somebody else, and I think all the Big Ten teams are. We've beaten the hell out of each other, and I think it's going to help all of us in the end."
Trying to beat up opponents you know personally is entertaining for a while, but it gets old. Trying to beat up strangers in the NCAA Tournament, that's when it gets fun again.