Champaign, Ill. — Last Saturday, following a victory over Ohio State, Tom Izzo talked about using a "sneak attack."
He was, of course, referring to the 3-pointer made that day by freshman Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn. It was the first of his career and proved vital in the three-point victory.
But when Nairn nailed another one in the victory over Michigan on Tuesday, Izzo even took a shot at himself.
"Anybody in America should ask, 'Why is your highest 3-point percentage shooter only taking two?' " Izzo wondered. "They should be on me about that."
Yes, Izzo was having a little fun with the fact his point guard isn't expected to carry the scoring load, but there has been little doubt Nairn's insertion into the starting lineup has been vital in Michigan State's recent surge.
Entering Sunday night's game at Illinois, Michigan State had won five of six, including the last three when Nairn took over for senior Travis Trice. And while his scoring isn't the stat to pay attention to – he had seven against Ohio State – the pace of the offense and his stifling defense have been hard to ignore.
Nairn had seven assists in the past two games while playing 36 minutes against Ohio State and 33 at Michigan. All the while, his presence has taken pressure off Trice, who has discovered his scoring touch by pouring in 22 points in the win over the Wolverines.
It's been effective enough that Izzo doesn't plan on changing things anytime soon.
"(Nairn has) taken some pressure off because he knows his role," Izzo said. "Travis is still very, very valuable and important to us and he's getting better actually at the point, but not having as many minutes on him at that position or in the game, it's easier to run a team. When you got somebody ball-hawking you all the time – in Tum's case, he doesn't have to worry about scoring as much. He scores by accident. … He doesn't have to do as much. That's what takes some pressure off. He can do his role, play his role and guys kinda know what he's gonna do and that's been good for us."
Nairn understands that role as well as anyone. And while he continues to work on his offensive game, he's not making any promises about when his next 3-pointer might come.
"My job is not take shots and go out there and force it," Nairn said. "If I'm open, I'll take it. … it just so happens I got the ball twice in the last two games at the end of the shot clock and knocked it down with confidence.
"I work on my overall game every day. I want to help my teammates win any way possible and I know my role on this team is to get people involved, play defense, keep our energy going … so I'm gonna do that every game.
Hitting their peak
A victory on Sunday would move Michigan State back into a tie for second place with Maryland and Purdue at 10-4 behind first-place Wisconsin.
And while every victory further cements the Spartans' spot in the NCAA Tournament, finishing in the top four also means a double-bye in the conference tournament that begins March 11 in Chicago.
But Izzo isn't as concerned about the byes as he is a late-season push showing his team is playing its best at the right time.
"The best part is that means you played pretty well down the stretch," Izzo said. "Because everybody's so close and I have no idea what the tie-breakers are. It's so confusing, you spread it out it takes a table to look at it. So I think the greatest thing for me wouldn't be what it does for the Big Ten tournament, it would be we played really well down the stretch and now we're worried about the Big Ten tournament."
Entering Sunday's game, Branden Dawson was averaging 12.4 points and 10.1 rebounds. Under Izzo, Draymond Green is the only Spartan to average a double-double for an entire season, averaging 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds in 2011-12.
Dawson has posted double-doubles in eight of 13 Big Ten games, leading all players in conference games, and has nine overall this season.