March 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Tom Izzo sees Michigan State rounding into typical March form

:

Spokane, Wash. It's good to be disappointed like this. But it's good to be right, too.

That was Tom Izzo's initial reaction to his team's 80-73 victory over Harvard on Saturday night, a win that punched another ticket to the Sweet 16 for the Spartans and did something else for their coach.

"This kind of helps me validate what I believed at the beginning of the year, the middle of the year and towards the end of the year," said Izzo, headed to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time in 17 years.

What he believed was that this team was capable of making a run in March, when his teams traditionally do. And with the Spartans headed home with still more work to do this season, he's at least half right now.

"I never wavered on what I said," Izzo said. "We're not back to the team that we were. But we're making progress."

Saturday's progression started quickly, with a glimpse of the kind of team Izzo began the season advertising.

"I think we should be a team that can run, run, run and run," Izzo said back in October.

And for much of the first half, that's exactly what the Spartans did against Harvard. Michigan State had five steals in the first nine minutes that led to run-outs and a handful of easy baskets at the other end as the Spartans, who had 10 dunks or layups in the first half, built a comfortable lead.

Too comfortable, as it turned out. But it was comforting nonetheless to see Branden Dawson running the floor and finishing.

He matched his career high with 20 points by halftime he'd finish with a game-high 26 along with a half-dozen rebounds. And while Harvard had eight two-point baskets in the first half, Dawson had nine by himself, even after a tip-in at the buzzer was waved off following a video review.

Too comfortable

Michigan State wasn't just running, though. It was running efficiently, committing just one turnover in the first half.

"That might be a record for us," Izzo joked afterward.

Like a broken record, they got stuck in that old groove in the second half against a Harvard team determined not to go quietly.

"That's how we wanted to go out," said sophomore Siyani Chambers, a little guard with a big heart. "We went out fighting."

The Spartans were fighting complacency "I think we got comfortable with our lead," Dawson admitted and their own penchant for committing fouls and turnovers in bunches.

As a result, a 16-point lead early in the second half quickly vanished, as Harvard's Brandyn Curry sparked a 19-3 run that tied the score with 9:07 to play and even had mild-mannered Tommy Amaker storming the court at one point.

"A lot of it was Harvard, but we weren't very good," Izzo said. "Even in the huddles, I was disappointed a little bit, in how we handled it. A couple guys didn't respond real well."

Redemption

Adreian Payne in particular. Only two days removed from his 41-point outburst against Delaware in the Tournament opener, he was largely a non-factor Saturday, finishing with 12 points and four rebounds in 30 minutes. And his frustration got the better of him in that Harvard rally, just as foul trouble got the better of fellow senior Keith Appling, who played just 22 minutes and finished with two points and three assists.

A pair of clutch 3-pointers first from Gary Harris, and then from Travis Trice helped stem the Crimson tide, though.

"You know what we did? We executed," Izzo said. "We executed a couple plays."

And then they played a little defense and executed a couple more. Harris hit a deep 3-pointer, then Denzel Valentine drilled one from the corner. The half-court offense wasn't good most of the night, but it was just good enough when it mattered.

"They responded like great teams do," Curry said. "They didn't lose composure. That's just a sign of a great team. And that's what they are."

And where they are now, is where they always seem to be this time of year, headed back to the Sweet 16 for a sixth time in the last seven seasons most of any team in the country.

"But what's different about this one is probably so many people pronounced us dead," Izzo insisted. "Is it a payback? No, it was our own people. But it's nice to see that what I believe and what I said to everybody is true. And for at least one more week, there's a little redemption to it."

A little more basketball, too.

johnniyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Gary Harris slams the ball through the rim as MSU plays Harvard Saturday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News