March 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Spartans finally top Wolverines in march to Big Dance

Indianapolis — Gary Harris hauled in a pass near mid-court, caught Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III cheating defensively, and then wasted little time in setting his course.

Straight to the hoop, blowing past a pair of Wolverines on his way to an emphatic dunk just before the halftime buzzer. Michigan State’s bench exploded, towels waving, and the Spartans’ combustible coach, Tom Izzo, did the same, screaming excitedly in his star shooting guard’s face, “That’s what I’m talking about!”

There was an expletive in there, too, and certainly an emotion that ran a little deeper. But given the familiar foe and this unique setting — the first-ever Big Ten Tournament meeting between these bitter in-state rivals — that was understandable.

And for a team that arrived in Indianapolis four days earlier, hoping to chart a new course of its own, there’s a comfort now in knowing, as Harris noted after a 69-55 win over Michigan, “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Fittingly, in a season defined by its wayward turns, they’re headed west in the East, bound for New York City and Dallas by way of Spokane, Wash., where the No. 4-seeded Spartans will begin NCAA tournament play Thursday against No. 13 seed Delaware.

It wasn’t much of a reward for a team that had battled injuries all season and now — finally healthy entering the postseason — had just rattled off back-to-back thrashings of Wisconsin and Michigan, the top two Big Ten seeds.

“We probably got what we deserved, even though we didn’t play with our full deck,” said Izzo, whose team lost seven of its final 12 in the regular season before winning its fourth Big Ten tournament crown. “We lost some games, that’s the way it is. But who cares now? It’s a whole new ballgame.”

That it is. And that is what Michigan coach John Beilein quickly reminded his team after it absorbed a thorough beating Sunday, outhustled and outmuscled by a more determined opponent.

Michigan (25-8) came in on a roll, running away with the Big Ten regular season title before running into a buzzsaw in Michigan State (26-8), a team they’d beaten twice already. But the third time was no charm.

It was ugly, in a way that Izzo couldn’t help but admire, as his team clamped down defensively — the Wolverines shot just 31.5 percent — and asserted itself physically. Michigan State, sparked again by tournament MVP Branden Dawson, had nearly as many dunks (six) as Michigan had assists (seven) in the game.

“But we snapped out of it like that, and we were really down after the game,” said Beilein, whose team had won seven in a row. “Then all of a sudden, the media’s done, and it’s, ‘Hey, let’s go watch the selection show.’ ”

Still, they may have lost something more than a game — and another banner — on Sunday. The NCAA committee denied Michigan’s bid for the final No. 1 seed in the field of 68. And though as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest drew opening-round games in Milwaukee — starting with the mighty Terriers of Wofford on Thursday — and a possible Sweet Sixteen date in Indianapolis, the Wolverines also were plunked in the middle of a stacked region that features Wichita State, Duke and Louisville.

Since the NCAA seeding began in 1979, nearly three-quarters of the national champs (26 of 35) have been No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. But in a year where there’s no clear-cut favorite — not even a handful of them, really — Beilein isn’t alone in wondering what all the fuss is about.

“I’ve never seen so much wasted energy on who is seeded where,” he said. “I mean, it’s incredible. … I don’t care where we’re seeded. I’m just happy to be in the tournament.”

No one was happier than Izzo, though, and it showed as he hugged his players and thanked the thousands of fans — Mark Dantonio included — who’d made the trip. He also saluted a city that has now crowned the Spartans champs in both football and basketball in the last four months

A season that began with such high expectations at Michigan State — Izzo insists this is one of his four or five best teams ever — started to slip away in January and February. But this trip to Indianapolis helped reassure the Spartans they’re still capable of anything, and maybe everything.

“It was the most difficult year of my whole career here, just because you fight making excuses, you fight the realization, you fight players being down about it,” Izzo said. “There was a lot more talking, you know. I got a minor in psychology, a major in medicine, and a two-year degree in basketball coaching this year.”

Now comes the postgraduate work, and for the Big Ten’s two best teams — one celebrating, the other subdued — this is all that matters.

“I’ve been in that room when you lost a championship and it meant you weren’t going anywhere or maybe the NIT,” Beilein said. “This is huge, to walk from that room and see us in the NCAA tournament, it’s terrific.”

Even in defeat Sunday, that’s what they were talking about. The game was over, but opportunity awaits.

Michigan State players enjoy the celebration following the victory over Michigan on Sunday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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