Niyo: UM, MSU thrill but postseason trials await

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — When the game was over and another banner was raised inside the Breslin Center, there was no reason for Tom Izzo to hedge anymore.

Michigan State’s head coach had gone all in — on his team, on the rivalry, on this night — and he’d won. So when it came time to look ahead and try to make sense of what comes next, Izzo had no qualms about doubling down on what he’d just witnessed. Not after doubling up on Michigan with a second win in as many weeks.

The Michigan State team with the Big Ten Championship 2019 banner after the game.

“I’m going to enjoy this for a whole 24 hours,” said Izzo, his cheeks still wet from the tears of emotion and the locker-room commotion that followed Saturday night. “They bet me that I’d watch the film tonight at 2 a.m. My team is losing that bet. I’m not gonna do it.”

Not after what his team had just done, claiming a second consecutive Big Ten regular-season crown in a setting that seemed so perfectly scripted even the losing coach was raving about the ending — and calling for a sequel.

“Make this the last game of every year,” Michigan’s John Beilein said after he’d watched another double-digit lead evaporate against the Spartans and their sublime floor leader, Cassius Winston. “We’re all in. We have two great programs. And let’s just hope we both keep it going for as long as we can, because it’s great entertainment.”

It is, and whether or not it’s wishful thinking, we’ll find out soon enough whether either team can keep it going this postseason.

A title like no other

For the Spartans, now 32-6 in league play over the last two seasons, Saturday’s triumph was something special. And when you consider all the losses they’ve endured the last year — two NBA lottery picks (Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson) left early last spring, and two of their top three scorers were sidelined this winter in Joshua Langford (foot surgery) and Nick Ward (broken hand) — it’s easy to see why Izzo says this ninth Big Ten title of his feels “unlike any other.”

It’s also fair to wonder how much more they’ve got left in them, even if Ward returns, as expected, for the Big Ten tournament in Chicago. But Saturday’s game was another reminder why you shouldn’t bet against Izzo or this Michigan State team.

Izzo sure won’t anymore. He lit into his players at halftime Saturday night, throwing down the gauntlet and challenging his starters, whom he felt were playing “in a fog.” Izzo called it “a character check.” And if it was loud in the locker room, it was also clear his players — Winston, senior co-captain Matt McQuad and sophomore center Xavier Tillman, most notably — had received the message, answering with a 46-point second half (on 33 possessions) that checked almost every box.

And that type of response is why some around the program — heck, even Beilein a couple of weeks ago — will tell you this team reminds them a bit of Izzo’s last Final Four squad in 2015, both in the way they play offensively and the way they handle adversity.

Michigan State leads the nation in assist percentage, and the Spartans are fourth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating, trailing only Gonzaga, Tennessee and Virginia. Yet if you ask Izzo why his team is where it is now, he’ll point to the top-10 defense as well. He wasn’t sure how good it’d be when the season tipped off in November, but four months later, Izzo admits, “I think that’s why we’ve hung in there.”

More: Spartans don’t let injuries derail Big Ten title run

More: Michigan bench shows signs of promise in loss 

That and Winston’s ball-screen wizardry — “He owned us both times we played him,” Michigan assistant DeAndre Haynes said — and a chemistry that’s hard to pinpoint. What the Spartans may lack in outward toughness — “What I have on this team is a lot of guys that want to please you,” Izzo said, “and sometimes that means a little softer maybe” — they more than make up for with an inner strength and a bond that’s been reinforced by all the injuries.

Nothing exemplified that better than the fast-break layup Kyle Ahrens made during that crucial stretch late in the first half Saturday, crashing to the floor and wincing in pain as he scrambled to get back up. Ahrens has been in and out of the lineup with a back injury in recent weeks, and after pleading with Izzo to let him play in this game, there he was picking up his team when it desperately needed a lift.

“They were so fired up for him in the next huddle,” Izzo said. “You talk about a guy with some grit now.”

Some of that surely will get lost now, as talk turns to the nitty-gritty debates we get bogged down in at tournament time, with basketball taking a back seat to “bracketology” for the next several days.

And go ahead: Crunch the numbers, if you must. Michigan State finished the regular season with 11 Quadrant 1 wins — the new top-50 measure utilized by the NCAA tournament selection committee. That’s tied with Virginia and Kentucky for most in the nation, and while that late-season loss to Indiana might’ve torpedoed their chances for a No. 1 seed, the Spartans, who expect Ward to return this week for the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, remain in the hunt, at least.

Michigan’s case for a No. 1 fell apart down the stretch, mostly because the Wolverines twice came unglued in the second half against their rivals.

Saturday, they let the officiating dictate their lineups, then lost their heads when the Spartans finally found their rhythm, Winston putting the ball on a string and “dragging us all over the floor,” as Michigan forward Isaiah Livers put it.

After Livers’ layup put Michigan up 50-45 with 12:23 to play Saturday, the Wolverines went more than 7 minutes without a made field goal. And by the time Jordan Poole’s 3-pointer fell with 5:03 left, the Spartans led by double digits, Michigan’s leading scorer, Ignas Brazdeikis, had fouled out, and the Breslin Center crowd had gone full tilt. (“That was like old times,” Izzo said.)

“I just remember the ball not going into the net for a while,” Livers said afterward, leaning against the cinder block wall outside the visitors’ locker room. “I looked up and was like, ‘Dang, we still have the same score.’”

And when it was over, they still had the same result: Another loss to their in-state rivals, this time with the stakes even higher than they were two weeks earlier in Ann Arbor.

“The bad part about that was Coach B was emphasizing poise,” Livers added. “We weren’t poised at all.”

No, they weren’t. Beilein even used the word “imploded” in his postgame comments, though he later amended that to use the word “poise” as well.

Plenty to still play for

But whatever it was, or wasn’t, it’s something only experience will correct. Michigan doesn’t have the offensive firepower it possessed a year ago, but it also doesn’t have quite the same veteran savvy Beilein relied on at crunch time.

All the more reason why the Wolverines are banking on Charles Matthews’ return from an ankle injury to solve some of their problems. He’s more than just Michigan’s most important defensive player. He’s also a 1-on-1 scorer who can limit the kind of droughts that doomed Michigan against Michigan State — or even carry a team, at times, the way he did in last year’s Final Four run.

“We’ve got a lot of gas left,” Haynes said. “And with Charles Matthews coming back, I think it’s gonna be really good for us.”

That said, I don’t think either of these head coaches would be all that upset if they didn’t see each other again next Sunday in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

Michigan’s draw sets them up fairly well for a run at a third straight tournament title, and that might do wonders for the team’s confidence, particularly if Brazdeikis can stay hot or Poole can find his groove. Beilein’s teams are 17-4 in March the last three seasons, but after a 17-0 start to this season, the expectations were ratcheted even higher. Maybe too high. But they are what they are.

Izzo, meanwhile, knows this banner night won’t be remembered the way it should if his team can’t make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive season. A semifinal loss in Chicago wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world — especially for Winston’s ailing knee — but a loss the following weekend sure would feel like it.

And even in the afterglow Saturday night, that needed to be verbalized.

“It’s a great feeling, it’s a great accomplishment,” Winston said, as the Big Ten trophy sat on display not far away. “But it’s not the ending for us. and it’s not the end of the season for us. There’s a lot of other things that we can accomplish.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo