MSU freshman Max Christie plays like veteran, earns respect

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Hinkle Fieldhouse was buzzing Wednesday night.

The hallowed home of Butler basketball was packed to the rafters, full of 9,100 fans breathing fire down on Michigan State, which had rolled in to take on the Bulldogs. It was the first time the teams squared off since the 2010 Final Four, a game played down the road at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

This one didn’t have similar implications, but it still qualified as a heck of a test in an unforgiving environment for a Michigan State team eager to prove that last season was an aberration. After playing No. 3 Kansas tough for about 30 minutes in the season-opener, then beating up on Western Michigan at home, the trip to Hinkle — one Michigan State took by bus — had the potential to be revealing.

Michigan State guard Max Christie (5) looks to pass around Butler guard Jair Bolden (52) in the first half.

It didn’t take long to realize two things: Michigan State might be better than we all thought, and freshman Max Christie surely doesn’t look like a freshman. He helped the Spartans prevail 73-52.

“He’s a pro,” senior Gabe Brown said of his young teammate. “At the end of the day, he’s a pro. He does everything right. He does his job every single day. He comes in and works, works more than a lot of people you’d know. He comes in works, drinks his water, and rests.

“He does everything right. I’ve never seen a kid that does everything right. It paid off today. I am happy for him.”

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Christie sheepishly admitted while sitting next to Brown that he does, indeed, make mistakes. However, it was hard to find them at Butler.

With the crowd at a fever pitch, Christie, in his third college game, was as calm and collected as anyone on the court. He was a spark early as Michigan State built a 14-point lead, scoring on a floater in the lane, finding Brown for a triple and nailing a 3-pointer of his own.

Early in the second half, when Butler had just hit a 3-pointer to pull within six points, the crowd ready to explode as a comeback seemed imminent, Christie buried a triple, quickly quieting Hinkle and squashing any thoughts of a Bulldogs rally.

“We hit a three and had a little momentum and he responded back with a three,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “As a young player, those are big-time shots.”

Christie finished with 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range while grabbing a pair of rebounds. One of those rebounds came in traffic and had coach Tom Izzo fired up as the team headed to a timeout, Izzo pressing his forehead against Christie’s in celebration at the sign of toughness.

“I went up and got that board to be honest, and I think everybody was really excited because I really went up and got it,” Christie said. “It was a really big possession and a big play to get the rebound. I made the play and everybody was excited. They all supported me through that and I appreciate them for that.”

It was evidence that Christie is everything the Spartans had hoped for, and more. They knew Christie could shoot, but the wiry 6-foot-6 wing is tough, too, not afraid to attack the glass and not afraid of the moment.

It was, essentially, Christie’s breakout game. He was just 3-for-10 in the opening loss to Kansas and followed that up with a 2-for-8 performance against Western Michigan, making Wednesday’s game a pretty impressive bounce back.

And as Michigan State (2-1) gets set to host Eastern Michigan (1-2) at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Christie’s performance at Butler could be just the start of something special. As Brown noted, there’s little his young teammate doesn’t do well, and what he doesn’t, he fixes.

“I got on him the first game, and he looked at me kind of strange,” Izzo said, laughing as he told the story. “And then I realized, why wouldn't he? I haven't been on him since he got here. It's not even any fun to coach him sometimes. So I asked the team, ‘Who am I on the least?’ They said Max, and I said, ‘Why?’ They answered the same way I did, ‘Because he doesn't do a lot of things wrong.’

“He's solid as the day is long. He's gonna be a special player.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Eastern Michigan at Michigan State

►Tip-off: 5 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

►TV/radio: BTN+/WJR 760

►Records: Eastern Michigan 1-2; Michigan State 2-1

►Outlook: The Eagles are coached by former Michigan State assistant Stan Heath, who is in his first year at Eastern Michigan. Heath was on MSU’s staff when the Spartans won the national title in 2000. … MSU leads the series, 32-2. The last time Eastern Michigan won was in 1987.