Michigan State's Nairn turns up offensive game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Tum Tum Nairn understands his critics, he just doesn’t much care what they have to say.

He knows there are questions about his offensive game, one that at times makes the Michigan State offense seem as it’s playing with four players.

However, Nairn also understands what his role is for the Spartans, so when he scored 13 points in an overtime victory against Minnesota on Tuesday it wasn’t an especially big deal to him.

“I don’t care what anybody says about my game,” Nairn said Thursday as Michigan State prepared to host Northwestern tonight. “I’m a Division I basketball player. I know I can play basketball. I can care less about what people say about me. I’m a winner and that’s all I wanna do is win.”

He’s done plenty of that in his Michigan State career, helping MSU reach the Final Four as a freshman and being part of last season’s team that won the Big Ten tournament.

But a foot injury hampered him all of last season, keeping him from putting in any extra time on his offensive game and it showed.

That has changed this year, but up until Tuesday night, Nairn was still holding back, content to let his teammates do the scoring. Outside of the win over St. John’s in the Bahamas, he hadn’t taken more than five shots in a game.

But trailing by 13 at halftime against Minnesota, the Spartans needed more from Nairn.

“Yeah, coach (Mike) Garland got on me at the beginning of the second have to come out and attack,” Nairn said. “I had to be smart, take my time and make the right read to give myself the chance to make plays for my teammates. When I started attacking it kind of softened the defense and guys were worried about me getting to the basket and then I was able to make plays for my teammates.”

Spoken like a true point guard, of course. But the numbers show Nairn put more on himself, scoring 11 of his 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers late in the shot clock while also going to the basket in transition.

He finished 5-for-11 from the field — the most shots he’s taken this season — while also handing out three assists without a turnover.

“I said (the players) have to trust the coaches and trust their teammates,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Really, what they’ve got to do is trust themselves some. So we’re making some progress and Tum was definitely better.”

Michigan State (9-5, 1-0 Big Ten) will need him to continue to be better as it gets set to take on a Northwestern team that is looking like it will be the first to reach the NCAA Tournament in program history. The Wildcats (12-2, 1-0) have some solid wins early in the season, but their two losses were almost impressive as they had chances to beat both Butler and Notre Dame.

Chris Collins’ team features a pair of impressive wing players. Scottie Lindsey is seventh in the Big Ten in scoring at 16.1 points a game and Vic Law is scoring 13.6. Lindsey is also coming off a 28-point game in a win over Penn State.

“Law was their big-time recruit and he was injured last year but he’s a much better player,” Izzo said. “Him and Lindsey are as good a wing combo as we’ll face. Both can shoot it, both can put it on the floor, both are athletic. They are very good players

“This may be the third- or fourth-best team we’ve played. … They were 13-1 last year then they fell on hard times and one of the reasons is they didn’t play as good a schedule early. This year they played a great schedule early and we just think they’re a much-improved team, very well coached and run a lot of great stuff.”

Michigan State thinks the come-from-behind win over Minnesota will help them build momentum. Not only was Nairn’s play encouraging, the Spartans got a huge night from Alvin Ellis while freshman Nick Ward continues to progress.

Getting freshman Miles Bridges back will only help — though that likely won’t happen until next week — for a Michigan State team hoping to get rolling in the Big Ten. Beating Northwestern, however, won’t be as simple as it has in previous seasons.

“I do think we took a step,” Izzo said. “We practiced pretty well. (It’s) how we respond now in a game I think we’ll have to play awfully well to win. If you watch (Northwestern) against Butler, if you watch them against Texas, who they they beat by 20, they’ve played really good basketball. Even in losses like Notre Dame, they’re playing really well.”