March 22, 2013 at 4:39 pm

John Niyo

MSU's Derrick Nix has some unfinished business

Auburn Hills -- Matt Costello knew before everyone else did.

The Michigan State freshman shares a room on the road with Derrick Nix, the lone Spartans senior and team co-captain. And Wednesday, on the eve of what could've been the last game of his college career, Nix was more than a little bit restless.

"Nix, why are you up so late?" Costello asked.

"I'm just ready," Nix replied, or so the story goes. "I'm ready for the game."

Unable to sleep, the Detroit native then did what came naturally, unleashing some nervous energy by turning his bed in their hotel room into a trampoline of sorts.

"I thought he was going to break the thing," Costello joked.

He hasn't yet. But he'll have a couple more nights to try after No. 3 seed Michigan State (26-8) trampled Valparaiso, 65-54, on Thursday in the NCAA Midwest Regional at The Palace.

And given Nix's superstitious ways, including his obsession with tidying his room — "We make sure our bathroom is clean before we leave and make our beds and throw away all our trash," he said — chances are he'll be torturing the box springs at least once more this weekend.

A clean sweep? That's the idea, all right. And Nix certainly made a mess of things for Valparaiso, sparking Michigan State's rout with a game-high 23 points and a career-high 15 rebounds — in 28 minutes — before a partisan crowd of 18,863.

Asked later to explain what'd gotten into him, Nix, who'd scored 20-plus points in a game once all season, reiterated something he's been saying for weeks.

"I'm a senior, and who knows what I'll be doing after college?" he said. "I've just got to keep playing well so we can keep winning."

If he keeps playing like this, they certainly should, though admittedly it didn't take long Thursday to see this was a physical mismatch. Maybe not of biblical proportions, but the senior-laden Crusaders — the No. 14 seed after winning the Horizon League — clearly had no answer for the big-man tandem of Nix and Adreian Payne.

And after his coach, Tom Izzo, yanked Nix out of the game for a quick chat early in the first half — he'd missed a couple of layups and lost his man defensively at the other end — the 6-foot-9, 270-pound center played like a big man on a mission.

"(Nix) just sealed us, you know, a little bit too low, too close to the rim," said Ryan Broekhoff, the Crusaders' leading scorer who was hounded into a 2-for-11 shooting night, mostly by an energized Branden Dawson. "And with his size and his skill level around the hoop, it's almost impossible to guard him."

An inside job

Impossible? Maybe for a mid-major like Valparaiso, but probably not for some of the teams looming down the road, including Saturday's opponent — an athletic Memphis team that held off 11th-seeded Saint Mary's (Calif.) to advance.

Still, anything's possible for the Spartans if they can keep turning teams inside out the way they did Thursday. Nix and Payne were posting up and passing out to foil double teams down low, then re-posting and converting, either with Nix in the paint or shooters knocking down three-pointers. (Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Travis Trice were a combined 6-for-12 from behind the arc.)

That was the game plan coming in, and for a change, the Spartans stuck to it.

"We did something we haven't been very good at," Izzo said. "We kept going back in there."

Even when they didn't, Michigan State still had its way with Valparaiso. Take the first minute of the second half, for example, as the Spartans — in a span of 25 seconds — shot 1-for-5 and grabbed four offensive rebounds all in the same possession.

The last two shots were from Nix, who staged his own private tip drill under the basket and went on to score eight points and nine rebounds in the first 10 minutes of the second half as Michigan State built a 27-point lead.

One to grow on

Izzo said Nix was "actually sicker than a dog" before the game. ("I don't know if it was nerves or what," the coach said, "but he was throwing up and everything.") But he wasn't dogging it on the court, except for that sequence midway through the second half, when he vented his frustration at the officials and prompted Izzo to angrily call a timeout.

"He told me if I said something to the refs, he would kill me," Nix said, smiling.

It wouldn't be the first time Izzo directed that kind of threat at Nix, one of the more puzzling projects he's had as coach, and it probably won't be the last.

"You know, it's part of the relationship we've grown to have," Izzo laughed. "I've grown with Derrick, and Derrick's grown with me."

And now, as the days grow longer, and the nights grow shorter, with his career nearing an end, you'll have to forgive Nix — and so will Costello — for staying up late and refusing to turn out the lights.

"Well, you know, it's my last go-around," Nix said. "And I'm not ready to be done yet."

MSU senior Derrick Nix, here crashing into Valparaiso's Kevin Van Wijk, wants to extend his collegiate career for as long as the Spartans' NCAA Tournament run will allow. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
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