Wojo: Still-flawed Spartans are growing interesting

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Travis Trice puts in two of his 15 points for Michigan State.

Charlotte, N.C. — Sometimes you close your eyes watching these Spartans, particularly when they dare step to the free-throw line. And then sometimes they open your eyes, and you wonder if you're starting to see something unfold.

This is who Michigan State is right now, a feisty flawed bunch that makes a lot of people nervous, including its coach. But there's evidence the Spartans can yet become more, if they keep finding missing pieces. And, you know, hit a few free throws.

It was all on display in the Tournament opener, a 70-63 victory over Georgia on Thursday. And you can bet it will be more taxing and telling Sunday, when Michigan State faces No. 2 seed Virginia. The Spartans run into teams that look like themselves this time of year, such as the Bulldogs, who were good at making the game even grimier than expected.

But then the oddest things happened. With another big lead shrinking, Denzel Valentine made six consecutive free throws in the final 27 seconds. Whether that's an omen or simply an "oh man," it was one of the signs the Spartans could find a way to play a while longer.

I'm not getting goofy here — it'd be a significant upset if they beat the Cavaliers, who are 30-3 and play incredible defense. But it's not a novel concept for a Tom Izzo team to start melding now. From melting to melding, Michigan State didn't fall apart against Georgia, and uncovered necessary elements.

The big three — Valentine, Travis Trice, Branden Dawson — took turns taking over, as they have all season. But then there was Bryn Forbes, coming off the bench to score 14. There was Marvin Clark Jr. providing another spark. There was seldom-used Colby Wollenman grabbing five rebounds in 11 minutes, every one needed against the board-bashing Bulldogs.

Izzo has spent time lamenting what his team couldn't do, but is interested now to see what it can do.

"I think this team has as good a chemistry as we've had in a long, long time," Izzo said. "They get along well, they hang together, we don't have the superstar syndrome. It's been fun to watch them grow together."

Playing when it counts

Not so fun to endure the mistakes, such as letting another 11-point second-half lead slip to three. But when the Tournament opener was on the line, Michigan State made the plays, a healthy cleansing after losing in a similar situation to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

Georgia is no Wisconsin, while Virginia is more like Wisconsin. So if Michigan State is experiencing legitimate growth, we'll know soon enough.

"We've been in positions like this all season, and we wanted to make sure this time we stayed together," Valentine said. "That's what we'll keep in the back of our minds, that we're not gonna let free throws hold us back. We can show 30 or 35 minutes of greatness, and we have to get it to 40."

That's what Izzo is seeking, in increasingly demanding ways. For instance, Valentine is his best free-throw shooter but has struggled with confidence after missing clutch ones earlier. There's no time for deference now, and certainly not when Georgia had climbed to 66-63 with 21 seconds left. Before Valentine went 6-for-6, Michigan State was an abysmal 5-for-13.

"I told him, 'We're winning or losing with you, that's the way it's gonna be,' " Izzo said. "No debate, no decisions. We've got some guys worn down, that's where some of the mental mistakes are coming, so he's got to do a lot of things for us."

Obviously, Michigan State needs big games from Valentine, Dawson and Trice to beat Virginia. The Cavaliers play a disciplined, grind-it-out offense, and the game will come down to the thinnest, toughest margins.

Such as free throws. Such as the offensive rebound by Wollenman that led to a Valentine 3-pointer that sparked a first-half run that led to a 35-22 lead. Wollenman is a 6-7 pre-med student, so he knows the importance of following instructions. And he understands the tone of his coach, who wasn't happy with another lead nearly blown.

"It's tough because you always want to play better, but it's good to have that experience of fighting to the end," Wollenman said. "Those experiences are invaluable because that's what you need to do in the Tournament, repeatedly."

Peaking at right time

Michigan State doesn't have any superstars but it does have pieces that can be deadly. It has balance, and it is developing depth. It can shoot and defend very well (Georgia shot 33.3 percent).

So what's holding them back? Talent level, maybe. Mental hurdles, surely. If you're not loaded with stars, you'd better do all the little things well, and repeatedly. Michigan State hasn't consistently done that, until the final 30 seconds of its most-important game so far.

"Sometimes, I've got to tell you, it's an out-of-body experience the things we do for no reason," Izzo said. "I guess somewhere, seriously, I've got to take the onus on that."

From beating up to building up, it's the classic Izzo transition at Tournament time. He'll have a lot of building up to do by Sunday, when Virginia will eagerly take another shot at Michigan State, which prevailed in last year's regional semifinal.

The Spartans won't be favored this time and won't get away with mental lapses. But they've been playing better for nearly six weeks, and it's being noticed. A reporter asked Izzo if Michigan State's potential is hitting a peak now.

"I think it's the highest it's been this year," he said. "But I think it's pretty easy to see we're not a typical Michigan State team."

True enough. But gradually, it's getting easier to see how it still might happen.