Wojo: Spartans playing in elite air now

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn Jr.  gives the "stink face" after a particularly nice play by teammate Joshua Langford in the first half of Thursday's dominating win over Notre Dame.

East Lansing — We knew the Spartans had players, lots of them. We knew they had size and skill and shooting. We knew they had as much raw talent as any team in the country.

But my goodness, if they’re going to play defense this tenaciously and run this determinedly, look out. This was a blitz from the opening tip, and for the second straight game, No. 3 Michigan State knocked the life out of a top-10 opponent, pounding No. 5 Notre Dame, 81-63, on Thursday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Star Miles Bridges isn’t fully recovered from an ankle injury? No problem. Tom Izzo is seeking more steadiness from his point guards? Cassius Winston was clutch and is getting more careful with the ball, and finished with 17 points. Freshman Jaren Jackson spent most of the game in foul trouble? He still delivered 14 minutes of hellacious, long-armed defense on Notre Dame star Bonzie Colson.

More:Michigan State turns top-five showdown into Irish wake

I suppose we should get used to performances like this, after Michigan State bombed No. 9 North Carolina, 63-45, the other night, holding the Tar Heels to 24.6-percent shooting. But Notre Dame coach Mike Brey wasn’t used to it, and had no problem admitting his team couldn’t handle it. Ten minutes into the game, Michigan State had sprinted to a 31-11 lead over a senior-laden team, and while the Irish recovered somewhat, it was brief.

“It was a little overwhelming because their fresh bodies wore us out,” Brey said. “They just keep coming at you. The first thing you start with is, can you stop their transition? And as much as we talked about it and tried to practice it, you couldn’t simulate how fast they were coming down on us. They’re as good as anybody in the country, and I’m glad they’re not in our league.”

It’s hard to find many teams in Michigan State’s league this season. As far as we know, it might only be one — top-ranked Duke, which beat the Spartans, 88-81, two weeks ago. In that contest in Chicago, Duke mauled Michigan State on the boards, 46-34, and you get the strong sense that won’t happen again.

It sure didn’t happen Thursday night, as Michigan State posted a 42-21 rebounding bulge. That’s where it all started, from rebounding to running, pushed by Winston, who had seven assists. As he improves his defense, he improves his chances of directing the offense, although the Spartans have so many options, it’s almost ridiculous.


This night, it was Winston (5-for-6 on 3-pointers) and Joshua Langford (17 points). Many nights it will be Bridges, as he gets closer to 100 percent. As far as Izzo is concerned, every night it has be defense, and that’s the biggest surprise so far – the Spartans aren’t just leaning on their superior skill to beat teams.

“We’ve been way ahead of what I thought we’d be defensively,” Izzo said. “We are doing a better job at causing some problems. Offensively, we’re still not executing like we could or should. But we have more inside-outside balance.”

It’s not a news bulletin to say the Spartans have the ingredients to win it all, and that this might be Izzo’s most-talented team. But after the disappointment against Duke, they’ve cranked it up in key areas, and Winston is playing like a guy who wants to be trusted. He was the MVP of the PK80 Victory Bracket in Portland, and scored 23 of his 28 in the second half of a 77-57 victory over Connecticut.

Against Notre Dame, he was the spark down the stretch, after the Spartans fought off a few threats. He nailed a three to make it 66-53, then flipped an alley-oop to Bridges for a dunk. Moments later, Winston drilled another three and it was 77-59, and the raucous Breslin Center crowd was in full fun mode.

“If we defend, rebound and run, there’s not many teams that can play with us,” said Winston, the 6-foot sophomore from Detroit. “We get the transition going and it just wears teams out. We can just send waves and waves of players.”

Winston is one of the wild-card waves, along with Langford and Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn. If the backcourt can have this impact, watch out, because no team can match Michigan State’s front-line size and rim-protecting strength.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from the coach of the fifth-ranked team in the country, who responded bluntly when asked what Notre Dame must do to rebound better.

“Not play Michigan State,” Brey said. “We don’t play them again, do we? They’re the best rebounding team in the country, so we’re OK, we’re good.”

Michigan State's Miles Bridges passes out of trouble with Notre Dame's Martinas Geben defending in the second half.


It has to be dismaying for coaches like Brey and Roy Williams, whose Tar Heels were dismantled four days earlier. Skilled teams often rely on their skill too much, but the Spartans so far are fully embracing Izzo’s demand for the tougher elements.

It helps that Jackson is a physical freak at 6-11, helping hold Colson to 6-for-19 shooting. It helps that Michigan State received an early humbling from Duke, and Izzo has wielded the hammer since.

“It’s really fun for me to play defense,” Langford said. “It’s something I want to be great at. Everybody’s bought into it.”

It’s the element that sometimes slows Winston, who’s neither the quickest nor biggest guard. But if he shoots like this (16-for-28 on threes this season), avoids silly turnovers and keeps the opposing point guard out of the paint a bit, he’ll stay on the list of play-makers.

“We’re not the same team as last year,” Winston said. “We’re not just top-heavy; we’re a well-rounded team. That’s gonna be big for us, because every night I’m not gonna be able to hit five threes, and every night Miles isn’t gonna be able to get you 20 points. We got a lot of options.”

Maybe more than we even realized. It’s early, and the Spartans’ focus will be tested again at some point. But if they truly are as tenacious as they are talented, there are no limits in sight.