Spokane, Wash. — Only a week ago, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo posed a question to his players.
“I asked my team, ‘Who is our go-to guy?’” Izzo recalled. “Nobody could really give me a good answer.”
But it wasn’t just the players.
“If I asked my staff,” Izzo added, “I’m not sure we could.”
Thursday afternoon in the Spartans’ NCAA Tournament opener, there was an obvious answer, however. One that was no doubt hailed by the chief in the Oval Office — President Barack Obama cited Adreian Payne’s healthy return as a reason for picking Michigan State to win the national title — and also by the one on the Spartans’ bench.
If this is to be another Final Four team for Izzo — and a first for Michigan State’s outgoing seniors, keeping alive that cherished program streak — Payne will need to be at the center of things.
Right about the time Izzo was asking for a show of hands, Payne was busy texting his coach with a promise to “finish strong.” He’s off to a terrific start in that regard, dominating an overmatched Delaware team with a career-high 41 points in just 24 minutes on the court Thursday in a 93-78 victory at Spokane Arena.
A one-handed jam with just over 4 minutes left punctuated Payne’s monster day, setting a school scoring record for an NCAA Tournament game. Greg Kelser held the previous high with 34 points against Notre Dame in the 1979 Mideast Regional final.
It’s the most for a Michigan State player in any game since Shawn Respert had 43 against Minnesota in 1994. It’s the most for a player from any school in the NCAAs since Tayshaun Prince poured in 41 against Tulsa in 2002. And Thursday, Payne actually outscored the entire American University team, which scored 35 in a loss to Wisconsin.
“When you’re scoring like that and the game’s coming so easy to you, it feels like you’re in a rhythm-- it feels like you can’t be stopped,” said Payne, the 6-10 center who also set a tournament record for most free throws made without a miss (17-for-17), breaking the mark of 16 shared by Bill Bradley and Fennis Dembo.
Thursday’s win sets up a reunion of sorts with former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, whose 12th-seeded Harvard team knocked off Cincinnati in the opener here in Spokane.
But while Harvard figures to be a more formidable opponent for Michigan State — Amaker’s team gets balanced scoring and won’t beat itself — the Crimson may have similar issues with Payne. There isn’t a semi-regular in Harvard’s lineup taller than 6-foot-8.
Nothing left to say
Delaware coach Monte Ross had everyone in stitches this week, building up the Spartans as the big, bad brutes from the Big Ten. Afterward, he was busy pointing out what a disservice the selection committee did his team.
“They’re not a four seed,” Ross said. “If they were a four seed, the whole world wouldn’t be picking them to win the NCAA Tournament. You know what I mean?”
The Fightin’ Blue Hens were no match for the Spartans on the boards — Michigan State finished with a 42-24 rebounding advantage — or in the post, where Payne went to work early Thursday.
The plan was pound Delaware inside — “Coach said he was gonna come to me early, and that’s what he did,” Payne said — and then turn a lesser opponent inside out. Once they did, Payne was in a zone, hitting his first four three-point attempts
“That wasn’t even in the ozone,” Izzo said. “He was in Pluto and beyond. I mean, he was way out there.”
In there, out there. Didn’t matter. Delaware didn’t have a prayer of stopping Payne on Thursday.
“He’s a special player and he showed that today,” Ross said. “You just don’t bank on him going 4-for-4 from three in the first half. And that’s what really set the tone.”
He chuckled and noted that Payne “sort of cooled off” in the second half, missing a couple jump shots.
“But 41 is 41,” Ross said. “He was a load in there. He was probably the best big man that I’ve faced in 21 years of college basketball.”
Payne’s better than most of the big men in this tournament when he lets the game come to him as he did Thursday.
“I know there’s freshmen that are good,” Izzo said. “There’s this and that, that are good. But the guy can do a lot of things.”
If he keeps doing them the way he did Thursday, so can this Michigan State team.