Wojo: Merciless Spartans show they can take on anything — even Duke

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman, left, and teammate Gabe Brown, right, celebrate after the team's 80-63 win over LSU.

Washington, D.C. — Challenge the Spartans. Go ahead, challenge them. Wear them down with injuries, throw a tall, talented opponent at them, see if they can handle it.

Oh, they can handle just about anything right now. Michigan State was forceful and fearless and amazingly focused Friday night, stomping LSU 80-63 with a staggering array of inside power and outside accuracy. If this was the next level Tom Izzo was seeking, how much higher can the Spartans go?

We’ll find out quickly, as Michigan State faces old friend (not a friend) Duke on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. for a spot in the Final Four. While recounting Izzo’s 1-11 record against Mike Krzyzewski, and retelling the legend of Zion Williamson, it’s worth counting how many times the Blue Devils have escaped, and how vulnerable they truly are. For the second straight game, a last-second layup bounced awry, and Duke held on to beat Virginia Tech 75-73 Friday night. 

You might also count how many ways these Spartans have improved. Against LSU, they hit 13 3-pointers and got production from pretty much everywhere. The Tigers probably figured if they contained Cassius Winston, they’d dominate with their big guys. Ha. Freshmen Aaron Henry (20 points) and Gabe Brown (15 points) were scorching, each notching career highs.

Train your eyes on one element of the Spartans, up pops another. Henry, who has been steadily rising and now is a major factor, was 9-for-14. Brown, who was averaging 2 points per game, was 5-for-7 (4-for-6 on 3s).

“The rest of the guys were really happy for the freshmen, that’s the cool part,” Izzo said. “That’s where I say this is the most unselfish team, no egos, they all pull for one another. Thirty-five points from freshmen? I imagine (LSU interim coach Tony Benford) is sitting on his bench going, um, who are those people?”

Were you sort of saying the same thing?

“Hell yes, you know I was!”

Cast beyond Cassius

Who are these people? People are finding out, as more emerge from beneath the Winston umbrella.

The concern in this one was that LSU’s quick guard Tremont Waters would spur a turnover binge. Ha. The Spartans committed only seven, and were only briefly challenged in the second half, when their lead was cut to four.

Winston finished with 17 points and eight assists, but marveled like everyone else at the youngsters.

And if this isn’t an anomaly — not just the result of LSU’s shredded game plan to clog the lane and force shots from the perimeter — watch out. The Spartans’ depth could be growing, just in time.

“We practice with these guys, we’ve seen them knock down shots after shots after shots,” Winston said. “So it was only a matter of time before they had their breaking-out moment, and it’s probably the best time for them to have it.”

Late in the second half, there was the perfect sequence to clinch it. LSU’s Skylar Mays drove for an attempted dunk, but was blocked at the last second by Nick Ward. That led to a fastbreak and a Brown 3, and just like that, Michigan State’s lead was back to 15. Also just like that, another challenge popped up, as Ward fell moments later, reinjured his left hand and had to leave the game. It’s bruised not broken, and Ward vowed to play Sunday.

Hey, nothing new for this group. Izzo keeps calling for new guys to step in, and new guys keep doing it. And just to make sure no one was left out, there was Matt McQuaid banging in a 3, then driving for a standard three-point play in the closing minutes.

Right from the start, the Spartans snapped LSU’s will. The Tigers looked like a team without a coach or a clue, and of course, they did have an interim in place of the suspended Will Wade. A team in strife sometimes rallies, and sometimes crumbles.

This is what they do

The Spartans have opted for the rallying angle, growing more impressive each weekend. They’ve experienced their share of injury adversity, but look like a team chasing something, as determined as ever. Early on, it was a Michigan State swarm, getting whatever it wanted — rebounds, open shots, loose balls. Izzo was so concerned about LSU’s rebounding, he gave a chilling pregame analysis. He also ordered up signs that read “cut out and rebound,” and had them placed everywhere the players looked, in the locker room, in the hotel, in their rooms. 

“They’re the most athletic team and biggest team we’ve played,” Izzo said before the game. “Turnovers and offensive rebounding, they do it with a vengeance, it’s almost violent.”

By halftime, that sounded like a punchline. The Spartans followed the game plan perfectly, outhustled the Tigers and grabbed offensive rebound after offensive rebound. It’s as if Michigan State hit the Tigers with something they didn’t expect, which makes no sense, because this is what the Spartans do.

They outrebounded LSU 21-10 in the first half, 10-3 on the offensive boards, and built a 40-23 lead, cut to 40-28 at the intermission. The Tigers didn’t know what hit them, or who hit them. Henry was brilliant, scoring 13 points in the first half on 6-for-9 shooting, and the overwrought debate last week about Izzo’s yelling looks even sillier now.

“If Izzo didn't care about you, he would let you mess up, let you be bad, and he'd just leave you alone,” Winston said. “He's been pushing Henry all year, been on him all year. And Henry started playing his best basketball toward the end of the year. I don't want to say that's a coincidence.”

Neither was this performance, where Michigan State’s discipline and efficiency dismantled raw talent. The Spartans found their way anywhere they wanted to go. The big concern was turnovers, but Winston didn’t get rattled, even when LSU made a run. At one point, the Tigers scored 13 straight and sliced a 17-point deficit to four. 

No sweat. The Spartans bounced back with an 11-0 run and their hefty lead was restored, 56-41. After that, Winston answered every threat, and Henry, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins kept sweeping up rebounds. For stretches, this was Michigan State at its absolute best. Izzo asked his team to find another level, and it did.

Another level awaits, in the form of No. 1 Duke, and who knows, maybe another and another. The Spartans keep lining up challenges and swatting them away, and I doubt they’ll be intimidated by what’s next.

East Region


Tip-off: 5:05 p.m., Sunday, Capital One Arena, Washington

TV/radio: CBS/760

Records: Michigan State 31-6; Duke 32-5

Next up: Winner advances to Final Four and will face West Region champion, Gonzaga or Texas Tech.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski