Michigan State's Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, Cassius Winston, and Xavier Tillman talk about facing Bradley in the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Des Moines, Iowa — One thing hasn’t changed about Matt McQuaid from the time he stepped on Michigan State’s campus in the summer of 2015.
Whether it was the huge game against Kansas as a freshman, his transformation to a lock-down defender or lighting up Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship game, McQuaid has never loved talking about himself.
Ask him about his 27 points against the Wolverines and you’ll hear about how his teammates got him the ball at the right time, in the right spot. Ask him about shutting down scorers like Carsen Edwards and you’ll hear about Michigan State’s team defensive approach.
It was the same on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena as No. 2 seed Michigan State prepared to take on No. 15 Bradley on Thursday in a first-round East Region game in the NCAA Tournament.
“I take criticism better than compliments,” McQuaid said in the locker room before the Spartans’ open practice. “Coach’s son.”
It was a logical explanation. Rob McQuaid, Matt’s father, was the longtime coach at Duncanville (Texas), stepping down so he could follow his three kids play sports. Matt McQuaid’s older brother, Mike, played college golf and his sister, Andrea, played volleyball at Alabama. So, the entire family has been around sports, and Matt McQuaid has seen exactly what it takes to be a winner.
And no matter how many points he scores, it only works if everyone on the roster is on the same page.
“We’ve just got a really close group,” McQuaid said. “We play for each other. Everybody has the same goals. We all just want to win, and are just playing for each other. Our energy, we feed off of each other and it’s really big for us.”
Of course, McQuaid is right. One player won’t take a team far.
Or can it?
The last time Michigan State reached the Final Four in 2015, it rode the wave of a senior guard playing like he knew it was all about to end. For Travis Trice, everything came together for a few glorious weeks during the month of March as Michigan State rolled into the postseason, losing only once in nine games — an overtime defeat at the hands of Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament championship game — on its way to the Final Four.
Starting with a March 4 win over Purdue when Trice scored 27, he was on fire. The guard scored 23 when No. 7 Michigan State knocked off No. 2 Virginia to reach the Sweet 16 then scored 24 to beat Oklahoma and capped off the weekend with 17 against Louisville to reach the Final Four. Even in a Final Four loss to Duke, Trice scored 16.
Is McQuaid on the verge of something similar?
“Maybe Matt can take that and bottle it,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “You are right, though. Travis Trice had kind of one of those — got better at the end of the year and made an incredible run in the tournament.”
Not surprisingly, McQuaid wasn’t putting himself in that category.
“I just want to win,” McQuaid said when compared to Trice. “You never know in these types of games. I just want to come out ready, and all I’m focusing on is taking it one game at a time and getting that win.”
Exactly the response most would expect from McQuaid. His numbers don’t matter and he’s not any more important than any other player. Get a win and move on, simple as that.
But the fact is, McQuaid’s play has been a big reason Michigan State grabbed a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship and an even bigger reason the Spartans rolled through the conference tournament for the program’s sixth title in that event.
McQuaid scored 13 in the first meeting with Michigan in late February and added nine in the regular-season finale, while bottling up the Wolverines’ Charles Matthews in the first game and Jordan Poole in the second. In the conference tournament championship, McQuaid eclipsed his career high in points just a week after scoring 22 in a win over Nebraska.
He had 18 in the second half last Sunday after telling best friend Kyle Ahrens he’d do whatever it took to win after Ahrens suffered a nasty ankle injury. He hit seven 3-pointers, the last pulling Michigan State to within two with 2:02 left on the clock after Michigan’s Isaiah Livers had just nailed his own, what most thought was the Wolverines’ dagger.
It was a shot that had Izzo fighting back tears on the bench, amazed at the fight in his team — in particular, his senior guard.
“I was just so proud of them,” Izzo said of that moment. “I’ve had this team respond time after time after time because there is a relationship player-to-player, coach-to-player and it’s good to see it happen.”
Ahrens marveled at what his roommate was doing that day, all the nights in the gym, putting up shots coming to fruition on the court in McQuaid’s final run with the Spartans.
“I was so happy on the bench,” Ahrens said. “There was one, two guys on him and he didn’t care — he just let it fly, and to see him do that put smile on my face. I was going crazy. I was so happy for him. It’s a special time of year for that.”
It’s that time of year again for Michigan State, and as important as Cassius Winston and Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward will be, it’s hard not to see McQuaid emerging as a potential March hero.
“I’m just taking it one game at a time,” McQuaid said. “Definitely more of a sense of urgency every day from everybody. I love this group. I love this team. We’re really a close and connected group. I just cherish every second and every moment with these guys because they’re like my brothers."
NO. 2 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 15 BRADLEY
Tip-off: 2:45 p.m. Thursday, Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
Records: Michigan State 28-6, Bradley 20-14
Next up: Winner faces No. 7 Louisville or No. 10 Minnesota