Tom Izzo, right, was especially emotional after Saturday's game, telling the media he was proud of his team. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
East Lansing — The tones were hushed in the Michigan State locker room on Saturday night. There were even some tears from coach Tom Izzo in the moments following Michigan’s victory over the Spartans at Breslin Center.
It was a classic as far as the rivalry goes — Michigan and Michigan State both sitting unbeaten in the Big Ten and the ESPN “GameDay” crew on hand. It was a back-and-forth battle all night that the Wolverines came out on top of thanks to some clutch shooting.
But Michigan State — once the disappointment wanes — will realize all that was lost was a late-January game. Sure, it came against its biggest rival, and that will always sting, but the Spartans might come out of this stretch better than they imagined.
While coaches and players insist on not using injuries as an excuse, there is no doubt that the absence of Adreian Payne (foot) and Branden Dawson (hand) had a huge impact on this game, as did senior guard Keith Appling’s continued limitation by wrist and hip injuries.
But as Appling said quietly after the game, “I look at that as a cop-out.”
Reasons to believe
No, Michigan State didn’t lose the game because of injuries — it still held the lead with just less than six minutes to play — but the ailments didn’t help. The absence of Payne and Dawson hurt on the glass, where Michigan held a 34-30 advantage, and Appling and Gary Harris were quickly running out of gas in the final minutes.
However, the silver linings were many. Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, Alvin Ellis, Russell Byrd — role players most — proved they can be productive in the toughest games. And defensively, the Spartans were outstanding at times, holding Michigan’s leading scorer Nik Stauskas without a point for the final 13 minutes of the first half.
“I had some guys that I questioned if I’d want to go to war with,” Izzo said. “I’d go to war with more of them today.”
And, even in defeat, Michigan State showed that when Payne and Dawson return, it still might well be the best team in the Big Ten and have the best shot at winning a national title.
“I want them to realize the hate for losing, definitely the hate of losing to our rival,” Izzo said.
There was plenty of that. While Izzo proclaimed how proud he was of his team, not a single player said he felt the same afterward.
For Appling, it was worse to lose his final home game against Michigan. For Harris, it didn’t matter that he scored a career-high 27 points. For Byrd, there was little solace that he played the most important 13 minutes he had in recent memory.
Costello probably best summed up the feeling in the locker room.
“I’m proud of my teammates, but we lost the game,” he said. “It sucks.”
It absolutely did for the Spartans on this night, and until they get healthy, their odds of winning a Big Ten championship get longer, beginning with Tuesday’s game at Iowa.
But in college basketball, conference titles are fine, but getting it done in March is what matters most.
Michigan State didn’t lose that opportunity on Saturday and nothing is guaranteed in the future. What it did do, however, is nearly beat one of the hottest teams in the country with far less than a full tank of gas.
“I have very few things to complain about, and I don’t do that very often,” Izzo said. “We’re going to lace them up. We’re going to go play Iowa, we’re going to go figure out a way to play a little harder and a little smarter and I know they’ve got a lot of numbers. But, if I took something away, I had a good week because, as angry as people are at the Dawson thing, it’s good to see some passion for basketball. As upset as I am about the loss tonight, it’s good to see some passion.”
That passion, with a full complement of a weapons, could be enough to make Saturday’s bitter disappointment feel like a distant memory by the end of the season.