MSU’s Costello expects battle with Purdue’s ‘monsters’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — If last Saturday’s matchup with Michigan was a track meet for Michigan State, Tuesday night’s battle with Purdue might be best described as a fight.

Wrestling, boxing — choose whichever metaphor works best — but for Spartans center Matt Costello, it’s clear this one will be far more physical than the 89-73 win over the Wolverines.

“It’s gonna be a battle,” the senior captain said. “It’s gonna be fun to watch if you like old-school basketball. We’re gonna be throwing punches, so it’s gonna be fun.”

No, they won’t really be throwing punches — at least that’s not the plan from either side. But there’s no doubt there will be plenty of physical play from No. 8 Michigan State and No. 18 Purdue, two teams that hope a late run can give them a shot to at least grab a share of the Big Ten championship.

It’s the only regular-season meeting of the year for the teams, and Purdue bring plenty of beef, including senior A.J. Hammons (7-foot, 250 pounds) and freshman Caleb Swanigan (6-9, 250) in the starting lineup as well as sophomore Isaac Haas (7-2, 286) off the bench.

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Hammons has become a more polished player as a senior, averaging 14.5 points and eight rebounds while Swanigan, a one-time Michigan State commit, has had a solid first season, scoring 9.8 points and grabbing nine rebounds a game for the Boilermakers.

Costello will be challenged to guard both Hammons and Haas, a tough matchup for the 6-9, 245-pounder who is averaging nearly a double-double this season (9.8 points, 8.3 rebounds).

“I think they’re pretty similar to how they were last year,” Costello said. “They’ve both gotten better in the post, more confident and more consistent. But I realize I’m smaller and I lose about 30 pounds to both of them, so I’m not gonna win in a wrestling match. I have to figure out different ways to beat them, and it helps having Gavin (Schilling) and (Deyonta Davis), who both have their strengths, that we can combat them.”

The Spartans (20-4, 7-4 Big Ten) have won four straight coming off a three-game skid that had them reeling. Much of the turnaround has been because of Costello’s steady play.

He’s recorded four double-doubles in conference play, including a career-high 18 points against Wisconsin and a career-high 15 rebounds at Minnesota.

While much of the attention has gone to Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes — and rightly so — it’s been Costello who has been the steady force, providing the type of consistency he didn’t have his first three seasons at Michigan State. Instead of being focused on scoring from the perimeter, he’s become a force in the post.

“Matt is starting to understand that basketball is important,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I always say that big guys struggle with that a little bit more than guards do. And I’ve seen how he’s approaching games right now and there’s just a different sense of urgency.

“I saw it gradually coming, but I think he took a monster jump. It was almost like the light went on and he said ‘I’m going to get down there and do my work.’ ”

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That work has been evident on many occasions, especially in the win over Michigan. The Spartans torched the Wolverines from 3-point range in the first half, so they knew they’d have to score in the post in the second.

Costello responded with 13 of his 14 points, none of them coming from outside, a trend that has been growing all season.

“I think when I figured out I wasn’t trying to be on the perimeter as much (is when it changed),” Costello said. “(Graduate assistant) Austin Thornton really helped with that. He was telling me, ‘Fit in where you can. We’ve got shooters all over the floor with (Eron Harris), Bryn and Zel (and) Matt McQuaid.’ And that’s not my job to be out there and doing all that kind of stuff. We need somebody in the middle, and somebody to show DD (Davis) how to do it. And so I was like, ‘OK, I guess I have to just stay there.’ And it’s worked out well.”

As Costello has improved, he’s brought the emotion for the team as well, joining Valentine as the heart of the team.

“They care about each other,” Izzo said of Valentine and Costello. “They are kind of opposite ends of the spectrum in some ways, but I’ve never seen two guys start banding together to try to accomplish something. There’s been a lot of emotion with both of them in the last couple of weeks.”

Now that emotion will get tested with brute force. And if Michigan State shows it truly can play any style necessary, it could be just starting to scratch the surface.

“Between (Isaac) Haas and (Caleb) Swanigan and (A.J) Hammons, that is three monsters in there,” Izzo said. “They also can go small; they have the ability to do that. They are going to present some challenges and I am sure they will be out on our shooters.

“We are looking forward to going down there for a big game on the road and see what we can do and how fast we can bounce back.”

Michigan State at Purdue

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: No. 8 Michigan State 20-4, 7-4 Big Ten; No. 18 Purdue 19-5, 7-4

Notable: MSU and Purdue are the top two teams in the Big Ten in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, 3-point field-goal defense, rebounding margin and assists. … This is the third straight season the teams have played only once in the regular season.