Wojo: Savvy Spartans can turn dis to their advantage

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State players start the celebration when the final buzzer sounds as MSU beats Purdue, 66-62.

Indianapolis — It was a stunning snub, for sure. And although they won’t say it, the Spartans appreciate it.

Michigan State was denied a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament even after beating Purdue 66-62 for the Big Ten tournament title Sunday. But upon closer inspection, the selection committee did the Spartans a favor. They’ve been playing so well for so long, they were going to have trouble digging up any motivating slights, and now here it is.

The Spartans were mildly miffed at their No. 2 seed, but they shrugged it off. Because truly, this whole weekend could not have unfolded any better. They landed in the Midwest Regional, where they’ll play in St. Louis against Middle Tennessee State. With two victories, they’d head to Chicago, home to thousands of Spartan fans.

They get to avoid the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif., and oh looky here, they get to be in the same bracket as top seed Virginia, their favorite foil. The Cavaliers are the weakest No. 1 in the field, and the Spartans have eliminated them from the last two Tournaments with grinding victories.

Another trek to the Final Four is wide open for Michigan State for many reasons, but two are obvious. Tom Izzo is a fabulous tournament coach, and Denzel Valentine is an incredible multi-dimensional player as driven as any senior could be.

Regional romp

On top of that, the Midwest isn’t overly daunting, with Utah, a hot No. 3 seed, seemingly the other tough test. So although the Spartans did have something to complain about — two ACC teams with top seeds?! — they didn’t complain very loudly. Did the committee disrespect them?

“I mean, kind of,” Valentine said. “But we can only control what we control. We’re in the Tournament, we got just as good a chance as anybody. If you want to say it puts a chip on our shoulder, go ahead and say it.”

Spartans snubbed as No. 1 but get favorable draw

The Spartans are playing for bigger chips, of course. Their celebration after beating the Boilermakers was muted because this is a team that’s harbored a singular focus since losing in the Final Four a year ago. They want to get to Houston and win the national title, and almost nothing else matters, not even a slap of disrespect that might have riled them in the past.

Tom Izzo downplayed the Seed Snub too, although he said he might get annoyed the more he thinks about it. It doesn’t seriously affect Michigan State’s path, and Vegas oddsmakers confirm it, listing Michigan State and Kansas as co-favorites to win it all.

“I think what’s gonna be good for the NCAA Tournament is, we needed to be in a fistfight, because we haven’t been in one, and we were in two of them,” Izzo said. “We’re good, and I think we’re getting to be real good. But I don’t think we’re a team that’s just gonna dominate. There’s 20 teams out there in all honesty that can win it.”

The Spartans weren’t dominant the past two games, edging Purdue and Maryland, and played sloppily at times, turning the ball over. But they basically collected everything they came here to get. They cranked up their defense, survived two taut games, cut down nets and donned cool championship caps. And then, just to make sure they were fully prepared for the next tournament, they were told by basketball experts sitting in a conference room that they’re not one of the four best teams in the country.

Cavaliers confounding

Oregon is a reasonable No. 1 in the West because the committee takes into account geographical factors. And Kansas is the overall No. 1, with North Carolina not far behind.

�Not done yet�: MSU wins Big Ten, wants more

But it’s curious Virginia landed a No. 1. The Cavaliers didn’t win the ACC regular season or tournament title and finished 26-7. Michigan State is 29-5, but the committee clearly slapped the Big Ten for a lack of top-end dominance. Virginia had more top-50 wins than Michigan State and played a tougher schedule.

None of it really matters if the Spartans keep elevating their defense and Valentine keeps making the National Player of the Year debate sound silly. He had 15 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists against the Boilermakers, and when he did make a mistake, he quickly compensated for it.

If it’s possible, the Spartans sometimes looked both beatable and unbeatable in three games here, with a heavy lean toward the unbeatable.

“When the buzzer went off, it felt good, but I was like, I already did this before, I want something bigger,” Valentine said. “No disrespect and I’m grateful for this. But the national championship, that’s where we want to be. That’s where we saw ourselves as soon as last season ended.”

Izzo is the Maestro of March, and for this run, he has the ultimate orchestrator. Valentine ultimately will determine how far the Spartans go because he makes all the key decisions on the floor. He’s the conductor and the connector, the guy who gets shots for everyone else but can create his own at any time.

Izzo is trying desperately to ease the burden on Valentine, using Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn for longer stretches. In the first half against the Boilermakers, Izzo used 12 players and eight of them scored. The Spartans always keep the big picture in mind, and to make their expected long run, they need a semi-fresh Valentine. He played 31 minutes in the blowout of Ohio State and 37 in the 64-61 victory over Maryland. That wouldn’t be a problem if he didn’t have so many taxing chores on the floor.

The Spartans committed 10 turnovers against Purdue and 13 against Maryland, and that will have to be tightened up. But it’s hard to imagine a team more primed than Michigan State, with its star seeing the floor so well, you’d swear he has a telestrator in his head.

The Spartans can see all the possibilities now, all the pieces in place. The seed was planted, so to speak, long before this seed was awarded. It may provide a little motivation, but I doubt any more is needed.



Michigan State vs. Middle Tennessee

What: Midwest Region first-round game

When: Friday, 2:45 p.m.

Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis

TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760

Records: No. 2 Michigan State 29-5, No. 15 Middle Tennessee 24-9

At stake: Winner meets No. 7 Dayton vs. No. 10 Syracuse winner in a second-round game Sunday