Spartans go back to roots to make defensive stand

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Matt Costello blocks a shot by Jake Layman in the second half on Saturday.

East Lansing — As Michigan State was in the midst of its first three-game losing skid in nearly three years, it was clear there was one clear issue — defense.

Despite entering Saturday’s game against Maryland ranking in the top 10 in the nation in several key defensive categories, it was clear the defensive effort needed a major overhaul.

The 74-65 victory over Maryland served as the first indication the Spartans are getting back to their roots.

“This is what we expect do see, what we expect to do,” junior guard Eron Harris said. “We had a lapse, but now we’re going to continue this and stay consistent with it.”

It was, by far, Michigan State’s best defensive performance in more than a couple of weeks. Maryland shot just 38.6 percent from the field, the first time Michigan State held an opponent to less than 40 percent since a victory over Illinois on Jan. 7.

“The emotion and the attention to detail on defense (were the difference),” said senior Matt Costello, who blocked three shots to go with 15 points and 12 rebounds. “We knew they attacked the gap really well and if you look back on the film you’ll see Bryn (Forbes) was 20 feet off his man to help and then get back. Eron was doing the same thing, Denzel (Valentine) was doing the same thing. Alvin (Ellis III) came in and did the same thing.

“The defense really picked up and that’s what won it for us.”

The help defense was key, as was the way Harris defended Maryland’s Melo Trimble. The Terrapins’ star sophomore scored 24 points, but Harris forced him to work for every shot, and Trimble turned the ball over four times.

It’s been quite the turnaround for Harris, the former transfer from West Virginia known more for his scoring and who has drawn plenty of criticism from coach Tom Izzo. But Izzo praised Harris on Saturday, especially considering a 1-for-8 shooting performance didn’t affect the way Harris defended.

“I’m growing mentally as a player, as a person,” Harris said. “I’m staying more composed to where if I’m not doing too well on offense I still got to do my job on defense. That was the key for me. As the season goes, my mental side of the game is improving so much and is making me a better player.”

It was a big part of the Spartans’ success on Saturday and will be vital moving forward. Getting point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. (plantar fasciitis) back will also help the defense, as will playing with the sort of intensity the Spartans did against the Terps.

“I think we played tough and played harder than we’ve had in the past and that really made up for all the mistakes that we had,” sophomore forward Kenny Goins said. “It was easy to cover it up by just playing hard.”

Those have been staples of the Michigan State program — playing hard and defending — and getting them back might just be the key to turning around the season.

“We knew this was a big stage for us and a big opportunity and everyone was counting us out,” Costello said. “We lost three in a row and they should because we’ve been (playing bad) lately. To finally be able to get this win feels good.”

Jersey talk

Michigan State had a different look in Saturday’s game, something that was a bit hard on the eyes for some, but a big hit for those that wore them.

The Spartans wore a lime green version of Nike’s Mean Green Hyper Elite Disruption uniforms, and there were no complaints afterward in the locker room.

“Oh my god,” Valentine said. “Those were sweet.”

Even Izzo was fine with them, more because it is something his players — current and future — were sure to enjoy.

“I know they’re crazy,” Izzo said, “but 17-year-olds like them and right now I like 17-year-olds more than 80-year-olds.”

Slam dunks

Saturday’s victory gave Izzo 512 career victories, tying Purdue’s Gene Keady for second-most at a Big Ten school. Bob Knight won 661 games at Indiana.

Izzo is third all-time with 237 Big Ten victories, trailing Knight (353) and Keady (265).

… Costello had his fourth double-double of the season and second in the last three games.

… Forbes scored 25 points, the most he’s had against a Big Ten opponent.