March 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Midseason critics steeled Michigan State for postseason run

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New York — They heard the snickers and the verbal jabs. They knew what people were thinking and saying.

“You’d see it on ESPN — Sparty goes down again, Sparty loses,” Denzel Valentine said. “We just said, nobody cares about us. Around campus, people didn’t show the same love as before. Now you’re winning and everybody wants to be your best friend. That’s still in the back of our minds every time we step on the court.”

And there it is, an impossible contradiction made real. The Spartans have been overwhelming Final Four favorites since the Tournament brackets were set, yet remain driven by the slights and the slams. It’s the sign of a Tom Izzo team eyeing a long run — don’t ever forget where you were.

Chips lead to ‘ships, and now healthy, Michigan State carries a healthy dose of edgy perspective in its championship pursuit. Oh, the Spartans are still solid favorites, whether they like it or not. Connecticut will have a noisy homecourt advantage Sunday in Madison Square Garden with a Final Four berth at stake, and that’s fine with Michigan State.

The seventh-seeded Huskies aren’t as feisty defensively as Virginia, which fell to the Spartans 61-59. They have a dynamic backcourt and a star guard in Shabazz Napier and present an entirely different challenge. But the challenge for Michigan State hasn’t changed much all season, with its primary opponent being its own roster.

Everyone knows the injury misery, from Branden Dawson missing nine games with a broken hand, to Adreian Payne sidelined or slowed for weeks with a sore foot, to Keith Appling waylaid by a bad wrist. Izzo said it was the toughest situation he’s ever dealt with, but he always knew the Spartans could end up here, no matter how many questioned it.

“I really wasn’t mad at the media for it,” Izzo said Saturday. “We weren’t playing as good, I just knew why. And I’m not vindictive about it, I’m really not. It was hard for me to get my arms around it.”

Sticking together

I know what you’re muttering — oh no, not more injury talk. Izzo knows it too, and said he sometimes was embarrassed he couldn’t explain it better. But remember all those times it was suggested Michigan State would be better for having gone through it? Well, that time is now, if ever.

Look at what Dawson is doing, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds in three Tournament games. Look at what a revived Payne is doing, averaging 23 points. OK, don’t look at what Appling is doing, because he hasn’t recovered his shooting confidence. This isn’t just a case of adversity making a team better. It’s a case of adversity making a team hungrier, maybe even angrier.

“A lot of people on campus, when we went to go get something to eat, or went to the stores, they were just asking us, what’s going on with the team?” Dawson said. “Some people said it was my fault, and I kind of laughed it off. It was definitely frustrating.”

Now Dawson can sit in an interview room in the World’s Most Famous Arena and chuckle about his impressive return, and how some people joked he should break his hand again to get even better. When you see Dawson and Payne dominating inside, taking turns lobbing passes to each other, you forget they got into a hotel scuffle at Penn State last season. Bonding through strife often is the Michigan State way — you can’t prove toughness without being tested.

The Spartans were severely tested just four weeks ago, when Dawson returned and the assumption was, everything would be better. This was a team ranked No. 1 early, and once whole, it could raise holy terror.

Except it didn’t happen immediately. Michigan State was beaten at home by Illinois 53-46, and a week later fell at Ohio State 69-67, its seventh loss in 12 games.

“I said after the Illinois game, we could win a national championship or we could just crumble and lose in the first round of the Big Ten and the first round of the NCAA Tournament,” Gary Harris said. “We knew people were gonna say stuff, it happens every year when you lose a few games. We stuck tighter and had the right mind-set.”

UConn's dog days

From underdog to overdog, it’s been a quick transition for the Spartans. But don’t tell the Huskies about being dismissed. They weren’t even eligible for the Tournament last year because of NCAA sanctions, and while they have the same record as the Spartans (29-8), they haven’t exactly measured up against top competition.

Connecticut lost three times to Louisville, including a tidy 81-48 affair. It’s a mercurial team, and it knows exactly what it’s running into.

“They’re going to come out and try to punk you,” guard Ryan Boatright said of the Spartans. “They’re big down low. They got some strong guys on the floor. It’s all about toughness, mentally and physically.”

A month ago, the Spartans weren’t very tough, and even Izzo wasn’t sure they’d develop. Now the defense is getting stickier, Dawson and Payne are scoring and attacking, and that familiar Final Four sheen is starting to form.

All the recent acclaim — including President Obama’s bracket endorsement — might affect an entitled team. But the Spartans remember too well to fall for that.

“I think it’s better this way because of where we came from — winning, losing, winning, losing,” Valentine said. “It’s better you came from your worst times now to your best times. We just gotta seal the deal.”

Sealed with a diss? If that’s even possible, these Spartans look capable of pulling it off.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Branden Dawson, second from left, is averaging 20 points and nine rebounds in three Tournament games. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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