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Wojo: Trice healed, steeled with health issues in past

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It's hard, really hard. He takes big shots, handles the ball, runs the floor, plays pesky defense and does it until he's gasping, and then does it some more.

It's hard, but not the hardest thing. Travis Trice's body has betrayed him before, and he swears that very betrayal — brain infection, concussions, infected blisters — is what makes him stronger. It's a remarkable story of recovery, wrapped by Michigan State's remarkable story of recovery, tied by tension and time.

Trice, like the Spartans, has stopped wondering what could have been, all eyes on what's possible now. Michigan State plays Oklahoma on Friday night in the Sweet 16, and has become the favorite to win the East Regional and advance to the Final Four. Trice has played with a controlled fury the past six weeks, seemingly more urgent by the minute.

It's a long way from the midseason struggles. It's a longer distance from when Trice laid in bed for 12 hours a day, his body wasting to 145 pounds, his basketball career in jeopardy.

"At certain points I was questioning whether I was gonna live or not," Trice said. "But everything happens for a reason. It made me grow as a person and strengthened my faith, honestly. I'm just thankful God let me go through that and come out better and stronger."

Trice uses the word "honestly" a lot, as if he needs to stamp out his own disbelief. In the summer of 2012, he experienced debilitating fatigue that baffled doctors. There were blood tests, MRIs and all sorts of medicines, and the closest they came to a diagnosis was a brain infection caused by a parasite.

After recovering, Trice suffered two concussions. Then he grew foot blisters on top of festering foot blisters. Then he had ankle and toe injuries. He essentially lost two summers, which stalled his development until now. As a senior leader who has seen scary things, he plays with modified fearlessness — modified because Tom Izzo doesn't agree with all the on-court decisions, but loves the intent.

When the game was tightening against Virginia last weekend, Trice waved off a screen with the shot clock ticking down and nailed the 3-pointer that essentially sealed it. In two Tournament games, he's averaging 19 points and is 6-for-13 on 3-pointers. He's averaging a team-best 18.8 points his last 11 games, equally adept at driving, passing and shooting.

The best is here for Trice, now that he feels better than ever. Izzo suggests his blossoming into the team's leading scorer is "99 percent" about health. The early pain may have contributed to the late gain, but it was an arduous wait.

"Really, the story of Travis Trice is going to end up a little bit more," Izzo said. "What would he have been if he had the same opportunity as 90 percent of the other kids? I'm starting to appreciate just how incredible of a job he's done under the circumstances placed in front of him."

More in reserve

Trice is part of the reason this is the lowest-turnover team ever under Izzo, and one of the best 3-point-shooting teams. He's also part of the reason Izzo calls it one of his tightest groups. There's no entitlement, no bickering. How can there be, when you've been so humbled?

No one has been humbled more than Trice, long overlooked and underestimated. At 6-foot and 175 pounds, he has grown up in the shadow of more-touted friends, such as teammate Branden Dawson and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.

Tom Izzo on Travis Trice: "I'm starting to appreciate just how incredible of a job he's done."

Trice is the oldest son of Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne High coach Travis Trice Sr., who leads his team into its own final four Friday in Columbus. Coming from a large, athletic family and being the son of a coach, Trice gained insight and confidence, and never has been shy expressing himself to Izzo.

But one meeting in mid-February confirmed for Izzo all he needed to know about Trice's character. The Spartans were struggling and Trice was wearing down. Izzo called him in and said, for the good of the team and his own stamina, he'd be coming off the bench, replaced in the lineup by freshman point guard Lourawls Nairn Jr.

Now, imagine that scenario. A senior finally gets his shot and surrenders his starting job to a freshman, partly to protect Trice's slender frame. Izzo also was concerned about Trice's shot selection, playing as if he needed to do too much, as if making up for lost time. He returned as a starter five games later, supplanting Bryn Forbes, and has been on an absolute tear since.

"Some guys would sulk, some guys would complain, some guys would be upset," Izzo said. "I learned all I needed to learn about Travis Trice in that one 20-minute conversation. … He's had some things to fight through, and I think he's at peace with himself now. Sometimes the chip on your shoulder can make you try to do things you can't do. And sometimes you use the chip to motivate you in a more sane way. Little-man syndrome, whatever you want to call it, sometimes you make it work for you."

The lineup shuffle didn't bother Trice, and frankly, not much can bother him now. Whether Izzo's motive was tactical or motivational, it worked.

"Coming off the bench, I know sometimes guys will say it doesn't matter to them," Trice said. "Honestly, it's genuine when I say all I care about is winning. I'm bought in all the way, 100 percent. It just seems like everything's coming together right now at the right time. Usually toward the end of the season is when guys start wearing down. I feel great, the best I've ever felt."

Getting stronger

Trice is quicker and stronger than many realize after finally getting a full offseason of workouts. He was maniacal about it, determined not to end his career as a hard-luck afterthought.

You develop a healthy chip when you're told you don't belong at this level. Trice thought he might end up at Dayton or Ohio, or maybe Minnesota, and when Michigan State called, there was no more looking around. He made a quick impact, leading Big Ten freshmen in 3-point shooting percentage (.405).

Then came the illness. Then came a concussion in the 2012 opener in Germany against Connecticut, and another concussion later that season. He played in 27 games as a sophomore but his growth was stunted, his head betraying him again.

Dawson, his longtime friend and roommate, witnessed the deterioration. Dawson has suffered his own setbacks, from a torn ACL to a broken hand, but watching his buddy struggle to even get out of bed was painful.

"Just seeing him go through that, it's a blessing he is where he is now," Dawson said. "He's a much better player than he was, a lot stronger after what he went through."

Izzo calls it the "All-American dream," a determined, undersized kid knocking down obstacles. Trice considers it an All-American test of faith. Adversity didn't dull his competitiveness, but steeled it. His teammates warn not to be fooled by Trice's fun personality, the hardened edge is there.

When commentators discuss Michigan State, they use phrases such as "battle-tested," "tenacious," "tough." It comes from Izzo, certainly. But it grows in guys like Trice and Dawson and Denzel Valentine. They've been through a lot, from injuries to inconsistencies, and they're not staggering to the finish, but running there.

Trice played 39 minutes against Virginia and scored 23 points, and afterward looked like he needed the wall behind him to keep from falling.

"Any time I get tired, I just start praying, asking God to help me out," Trice said. "I prayed a lot the last game because I was exhausted. That's all it is, I really don't have a special thing. I'm just living in the moment."

Appreciating the fleeting moments isn't easy in the withering pressure of one-and-done time. For Trice, appreciating the moment isn't hard at all, now that he finally gets to live it.