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Spartans' big 3 emerge from wings to lead the way

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — There was always someone else.

It could be Draymond Green or Derrick Nix. It could be Adreian Payne or Gary Harris. And on plenty of nights, it could be Keith Appling.

When Michigan State put its fortunes on one player, or a group of players, that's where it lay.

It worked out well many nights.

As a senior, Green put the Spartans on his shoulders and led them to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Appling took his share of big shots during his four seasons, beating more than one team with a late drive to the basket.

And when Michigan State stormed to an 18-1 record to open last year and won the Big Ten tournament with a run to the Elite Eight, it was Payne and Harris that carried the load.

For Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, there was always a role. Sometimes it was a bigger role, like the one Dawson played down the stretch last season. But there was always the feeling their performance would be a bonus.

If they played well, great. If not, the other guys would carry the load.

Heading into Michigan State's meeting against Oklahoma in the East Regional semifinals Friday, things have changed. Tom Izzo has talked about his big three — Dawson, Trice and Valentine.

"Most of our guys were in secondary roles in the past couple years," Izzo said. "That's what happens when you lose kids. Everybody's got to step up."

All three have done so at different times this season. Valentine had the winning shot against Ohio State. Trice was waving off screens and hitting deep 3-pointers to beat Virginia. And Dawson is in the midst of another postseason surge.

"We are embracing it now," Dawson said. "Denzel and Travis, they dealt with it the most because they came off the bench (last year) without any pressure. But now it's obvious we have to step up and lead this team and score the ball."

Added Trice: "It's something coming into the season I kind of knew the position I was going to be in. But that confidence comes from in the summer and putting in all the work and just really having faith in yourself. That's all it really is, just hard work."

Dawson was the only player always expected to carry a team. He was the highly recruited high school All-American, but injuries have slowed him and lapses in effort have hurt.

Trice was always the consummate backup, giving solid minutes and some scoring punch but never being counted on for too much.

For Valentine, the idea of carrying a team never has been a question. His leadership is regularly lauded.

"I think Denzel embraced it from the beginning," Izzo said. "Denzel always relished that. Personally, I'd like to have everything on my back. I wish I could shoot the free throws and do the things, but every kid is different.

"I think I had three different guys. Trav grew into it. I'm not sure it's something that BJ — not that it doesn't matter — but I think he doesn't need the weight of the world on his shoulders. I think Denzel loves to have it."

Valentine had little production against Virginia, but at the end of the game, he was taking the ball and didn't shy away from the free-throw line, something that has plagued him this season.

"It's pressure, but it's pressure that we wanted," he said. "That's what we work hard for, that's what we came here for, because we knew eventually we would be put in this position. You can call it pressure, but I think we faced the pressure, especially Travis and BJ against Virginia. They embraced it a lot.

"Yeah. I like the pressure. This is what I work hard for and I like being the person that coach can count on or the team looks to because I want to be the man that takes everything. I've worked hard enough and I'm confident enough to believe in myself."

All three are that confident, but none carry an ego. Each talked about needing the others if Michigan State is to advance.

And since the postseason began with the Big Ten tournament, each has been at the top of his game.

"Any time you have three realty major options of guys that can carry an offense it makes it easier," Trice said. "I don't feel like we've had a game where all three of us are clicking at the same time. We're still waiting for that day and hopefully it happens soon."