March 21, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan State feeds Derrick Nix, chews up Valparaiso

Auburn Hills -- This was sound and simple, a graphic glimpse at the Spartans' preferred formula — seize with size.

Michigan State cut Valparaiso down to size in its NCAA Tournament opener at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday, dominating as thoroughly as a No. 3 seed is supposed to dominate. Derrick Nix pounded and pounded, then when he got irritated, he pounded some more, as Michigan State rolled to a 65-54 victory.

It wasn't even that close. The Spartans led by as many as 27, and for most of the second half, the only question was whether the Crusaders would ever collect a clean rebound. This is what Michigan State must do inside with Nix, Adreian Payne and leaper Branden Dawson, especially when the opponent doesn't have a starter taller than 6-8.

When the Spartans roll, it begins there. Valparaiso had all the experience, starting five seniors, but few teams can match Michigan State's physical force. And when Nix gets going, it's a whole lot easier for guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris to get going.

Sticking to the plan

Nix finished with 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds as the Spartans piled up a staggering 49-23 rebounding edge. Appling had 15 points, and he and Harris combined to hit five of 10 three-pointers. The poor Crusaders tried to double-team the big fellas, which left the guards open. When they switched strategy, the Spartans went back to whacking them with the big stick.

"I thought (Valparaiso) did a great job doubling the post early, and then we did something we haven't been very good at — we kept going back in there," coach Tom Izzo said. "We pretty much stayed with the same plan the whole game. … Hopefully this gives Nix a shot in the arm. I got on him hard a few times and he responded."

Sometimes the Spartans don't feed the big fella enough. And sometimes Nix forces things and gets frustrated. But no one is bringing more energy these days than the lone senior in the rotation. Nix wasn't feeling well, throwing up before the game, but when he started rumbling through the lane, the ill effects were gone.

Nix is 6-9, 270 pounds and almost impossible to budge when planted in the paint. The problem is, defenses are eager to swat away at him. Nix nearly got a technical foul in the second half arguing a no-call, which brought a loud rebuke from Izzo.

"He basically said, if I say something to the refs, he'll kill me," Nix said. "Sometimes coaches don't understand being double-teamed is frustrating when you got two big guys coming at you."

Uh, imagine how frustrating it is for the opposition. Valparaiso had no chance of slowing down the train, and even though Izzo didn't enjoy the closing minutes, or Michigan State's occasionally sloppy passing (17 turnovers), he had to love his team's determination.

Down to business

This was an all-business effort before the hometown crowd. It began the day before, when Izzo ordered his players to leave their cellphones back at the hotel. No Twitter, no chatter, just roll up the muscles and go to work.

There was concern about distractions, but not for long. Did you notice the two Detroit Pershing players, Nix and Appling, had the two biggest efforts? And the guy playing in the final games of his college career had the biggest of the big.

"The end is near and he doesn't have an answer where he's going next," Izzo said. "He's almost scared sometimes, like a big teddy bear, like, 'What am I going to do?' At times I can just see it in him, and it drives him."

Drives him hard. Drives him straight to the basket, as often as he can.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Denzel Valentine of the Spartans high-fives Derrick Nix, who finished with a career-high 15 rebounds. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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