Niyo: Spartans respond to history lessons
East Lansing — It's billed as a reunion. But it's also a reminder.
It's an annual opportunity to connect the past to the present for Michigan State's basketball program. But this year's alumni weekend was more than that.
It was a chance to talk about the future, too, which is what the Spartans did late last week. With Tom Izzo headed to Detroit for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony Thursday night, a couple of his former players, Draymond Green and Derrick Nix — one a budding NBA star and the other just back from a professional stint in Europe — held a team meeting in his absence.
"Those guys are better coaches than I am," Izzo said, though he jokingly added he was happy to hear Nix say Green "did most of the talking."
They talked about a lot of things, but chief among them was what it'll take for this year's squad to do what theirs had done, year in and year out, which is make the NCAA Tournament
"It really helped, just breaking it down for us, what we needed to do," said senior Travis Trice, one of the Spartans' co-captains.
The timing couldn't have been better, with some 200 former players and team managers in town for Saturday's rivalry game with No. 23 Ohio State, and the Spartans' postseason plans in flux with Selection Sunday only a month away.
And the way it ended, with a raucous celebration on the court after a 59-56 win over the Buckeyes — Denzel Valentine's 3-pointer clinched it with 3.2 seconds left — was only part of that.
"As everybody was jumping around (in the locker room), Day-Day stopped everybody and reminded them 'this is great, but this is what we do here,' " Izzo said, referring to Green, who went to two Final Fours and was the national player of the year 2012. "That was cool. That was really cool. Then he jumped on everybody and had fun with them."
Streak a badge of honor
Funny how that works, when you build a tradition and then expect others to live up to it, the way Izzo & Co. have done at Michigan State. The streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths isn't just a statistic — the third-longest active streak in college hoops, and the fifth-longest in history. It's a treasured keepsake, and a badge of honor. And while it's not talked about much, it was this past weekend.
Simply put, Valentine said, "You don't want to let those guys down."
And that they didn't Saturday, "that was huge," he added. Senior Branden Dawson, who put the NBA on hold last spring and finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks against Ohio State, said it "means everything" to keep the good times rolling.
And seeing all those familiar faces — in the stands, and in the locker room — only drove that feeling home.
"It did, it does," said Trice, who shares captain's duties with Valentine. "It's just motivation, being around those guys. We don't want to be the group that breaks the streak. And we realize it, where we are."
Mostly, they realize they aren't there yet, though Saturday's win sure puts them in a better place. At 17-8 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten, Michigan State is on the right side of the bubble at the moment, despite that 3-6 record against RPI Top 50 opponents.
But four of the Spartans' final six regular-season games are on the road, beginning with Tuesday's rivalry date in Ann Arbor. And though Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Saturday, "If us and Michigan State aren't NCAA Tournament teams, I'm not sure who is," Izzo would rather not find out.
Which is why the ESPN cameras caught him smiling — laughing, even — as the final minutes played out Saturday.
Big 3 make key plays
With Michigan State clinging to a one-point lead, Dawson was headed to the free-throw line, where he'd made just 25 percent of his attempts in the month of February.
"I'm more of a pessimist than an optimist, we all know that," Izzo explained afterward. "But I did feel they were going in. And when the first one went in, I'm embarrassed to say I laughed."
Then Dawson hit the second one as well. A couple minutes later, Trice made the big play Izzo told him he'd have to make down the stretch — a driving layup with 1:16 left make it a three-point lead again. And finally after Ohio State tied it with 36 seconds remaining, there was Valentine running off a screen and burying a 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to win it.
"It was almost like somebody was looking down and it just all went like it's supposed to go," Izzo said.
If it does from here, Izzo knows exactly where he'll be a month from now. The Spartans will be where they're supposed to be.
Michigan State owns the third-longest active streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and the fifth-longest in history (active streaks in bold):
1. North Carolina – 27 years (1975-2001)
2. Kansas – 25 (1990-2014)
3. Duke – 19 (1996-2014)
4. Indiana – 18 (1986-2003)
5. (tie) Michigan State – 17 (1998-2014)
Kentucky – 17 (1992-2008)
7. Wisconsin – 16 (1999-2014)
8. Gonzaga – 16 (1999-2014)