March 8, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Matt Charboneau

Spartans finally adding some punch to their preseason promise

Denzel Valentine has something to shout about during Michigan State's win over Iowa on Thursday night. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

East Lansing – Michigan State closes the regular season Sunday at Ohio State and there isn’t exactly much at stake.

The only thing left to determine in this year’s Big Ten race is seeding for the conference tournament, and for the Spartans, that means either the No. 2 or No. 3 spot. The only difference between the two – beyond an opponent in the quarterfinals – is game time on Friday.

But that is hardly the focus at this point for No. 22 Michigan State (23-7, 12-5 Big Ten). When it plays in the Big Ten tournament and which team it faces are secondary to Michigan State playing like Michigan State.

For weeks the Spartans had been struggling to regain the form that made them Big Ten favorites early in the season. And even after all of their injured players finally returned last weekend against Illinois, they turned in one of their worst performances of the year.

It created a sense of true concern surrounding Michigan State’s potential for the first time. It was healthy, but something was missing. Coach Tom Izzo warned it could happen, but even he would have had a hard time predicting just how tough it would be.

The performance against Illinois was borderline shocking, and through 20 minutes on Thursday against Iowa, it appeared the chemistry Michigan State once possessed was going to be difficult to bring back.

Then Izzo jumped on his team at halftime, challenging them and telling them to “quit talking it and start walking it.”

And things changed.

Keith Appling finally looked like Keith Appling. Branden Dawson was all over the court. Adreian Payne was demanding the ball. Travis Trice was scoring. Denzel Valentine was nearing a triple-double.

The Spartans ran away from the Hawkeyes and in the process reminded everyone – themselves included – why they were a heavy favorite to play in the Final Four before the season began.

“I think this is the first time we felt like we’ve played together as a team in a while,” Payne said. “We’ve got everybody back, it was fun.”

It was what Michigan State fans had been counting on for weeks. A healthy Michigan State team meant a good Michigan State team, and that is what showed in the second half against Iowa.

But as promising of a sign as it was, there was one specific point of that second half that might have shown, more than anything else, that the Spartans are close to being primed for the postseason.

It came late in the game, the outcome long decided, when Iowa’s Zach McCabe flung Trice to the ground near the Hawkeyes bench. The Spartans on the court immediately sprinted to Trice’s aid and the bench came close, too. Russell Byrd was even ejected for going too far.

At the time, Izzo was furious, hollering at his players to get back to the bench.

But in that moment, the Spartans showed a fight Izzo had to be happy to see.

“It was a physical game,” Izzo said. “I’ve been complaining our team is not tough enough. I said we’ve lost our two toughest guys in Dawson and Appling, but tonight …”

He paused, probably thinking it best not to go any further.

“I thought both teams played awfully hard,” he said.

Just a few days earlier, the Spartans looked like strangers on the court. Against the Hawkeyes, they were ready to fight for each other.

None of that means Michigan State will end up at AT&T Stadium for the Final Four. But it shows there is, at least, a fire.

The season finale at Ohio State means little in the grand scheme of things. But for a team that reminded itself how much it has to play for, it might be just next step in reminding everyone else.

Michigan State at Ohio State

Tipoff: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Value City Arena, Columbus, Ohio.

TV / radio: CBS / WJR

Records: No. 22 Michigan State 23-7, 12-5 Big Ten; Ohio State 22-8, 9-8.

Notable: In eight career games against Ohio State, MSU’s Adreian Payne is averaging 11.9 points on 35-of-55 shooting (.636).

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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