MSU needs to 'tighten things up' in tournament

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State’s primary goal in Indianapolis was to bring home a Big Ten tournament title.

It did that by beating Purdue to win its fifth tournament title, second in the last three years.

But what might have been just as important is the fact Michigan State is battle-tested heading into the NCAA Tournament, which begins for the Spartans at 2:45 p.m. Friday against Middle Tennessee in the Midwest Regional in St. Louis.

“I don’t know if I saw what I wanted to see, but what I saw was that we found a way to win,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And that, over anything else, is the most important. Do you find a way to win?”

It’s something that hadn’t been much of an issue for Michigan State as it entered last weekend on a roll. It had won 10 of 11, and one of the victories came by less than 10 points.

But after cruising past Ohio State in the quarterfinals, the days of starters on the bench late in games all but disappeared. Michigan State gutted out a 64-61 victory over Maryland in the semifinals before outslugging Purdue, 66-62, in the championship game.

It was rarely pretty against Maryland and Purdue.

“We’re not where we need to be in those last 10 minutes of games yet,” Izzo said. “We’ve got to tighten things up. That’s the best word I can use. We’ve just got to tighten things up a little bit as far as when we’re taking a chance on a play, when we’re throwing it up (for a lob), what chances we’re taking on defense, and what we want to run. That is maybe the hardest. Where do you want to go with different lineups and different teams and different teams you’re playing?”

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Almost as important, Michigan State’s three wins at the Big Ten tournament showed it can adapt.

The Spartans can adapt when the shots aren’t falling — Bryn Forbes was 1-for-10 from 3-point range the last two games — and can adapt depending on which team they are facing.

“I think this team has prepared well for the Tournament,” Izzo said. “The games we just played, we might have played one of the biggest teams that you can could play against in the NCAA (against Purdue), and you played a very athletic one in Ohio State, and then maybe as talented a one — one through five — as any in Maryland.

“But we did show we could win games in different ways.”

This Spartans team also has become accustomed to winning championships, and doing so by playing in a tournament format. It started with three wins in four days in November to capture the Wooden Legacy title.

Now, Michigan State will put its approach to the NCAA Tournament to the test again. The key is to win the weekend, and if the Spartans do, one more championship could be waiting.

“We went a few years without winning those preseason tournaments,” Izzo said. “And I think playing a championship game and winning them, being on that stage, learning how to win a championship is important, and that’s why I thought this weekend was so important.”

That leaves Michigan State using the next few days to fix the late-game issues Izzo noticed.

“What do we got to focus on now?” he said. “It’s tightening up our offense the second half. We still got a little sloppy. I think we made a couple errant passes. I think we took a couple of bad shots, and I think we missed a couple of layups. Those things are not going to be able to be tolerated if we’re going to move on in this tournament.”

The mistakes will be emphasized before Michigan State plays Friday, but getting the win will still be what matters most. It’s what Izzo was happiest about at the Big Ten tournament, and with Denzel Valentine running the show, the Spartans are in good shape.

“Can you find a way to win?” Izzo said. “Sometimes no matter how you do it or how lucky you are or unlucky you are, if you can find a way to win, you grow into that, too. And with a guy like Denzel, he might make a mistake here and there, but he does an incredible job of finding a way to win.”