Niyo: Rout shows MSU primed for March Madness

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes enjoy the closing moments of MSU's win.

East Lansing –  March can’t come soon enough for Tom Izzo.

Because here we are at the end of February — the leap year is all that’s standing in the way of the madness now — and here Michigan State’s hard-to-please coach was Sunday with few, if any, legitimate gripes.

Izzo spent the final 10 minutes of his team’s 88-57 rout of Penn State planted in his seat on the home team’s bench at Breslin Center. And later, he spent the bulk of his 20-minute postgame news conference explaining how uncomfortably happy his Spartans had just made him.

“And that’s enjoyable,” senior forward Matt Costello laughed, “because he’s very good at finding things to complain about.”

Sunday, though, even Izzo admitted it was a stretch after his Spartans throttled a Penn State team that came in on a bit of a roll, having won four of its last five, including home victories over Big Ten leaders Indiana and Iowa.

Sure, the Spartans missed too many free throws. And yes, the zone offense had its share of hiccups. But Michigan State dominated from the opening tip Sunday, never trailed and led by as many as 28 in the first half. The game was so lopsided, in fact, Izzo actually was apologizing to his starters afterward —namely player-of-the-year candidate Denzel Valentine — for not playing them longer. Three of the five played fewer than 20 minutes.

“Michigan State’s playing at a really incredible level,” said Penn State coach Pat Chambers, who didn’t even see the second half Sunday after getting ejected for a pair of technical fouls with 4:53 left before the break.

Big men respond

By then, he’d seen enough, and not just from the officiating crew. He’d heard enough, too, noting — as Izzo later did — how well Michigan State’s senior leaders on the floor are verbalizing what their coach is preaching, particularly defensively.

“I can hear them out there talking all the time,” Chambers said.

Which, in turn, is why we heard Izzo saying this at the podium Sunday: “The most fun in coaching is to address something and to get a response.”

That was in response to the way the Spartans have played — and practiced — since a lackluster first-half effort at Ohio State last week. More specifically, since Izzo’s blistering halftime critique in Columbus, much of it directed at his “out to lunch” frontcourt tandem of Costello and freshman Deyonta Davis.

Sunday, those two feasted on the Nittany Lions, with Costello posting a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) in just 19 minutes and Davis needing only 18 to rack up 15 points, five rebounds and three blocks.

“Those guys today, they played like men,” Izzo gushed.

Costello, Davis play �like men,� MSU rolls

And the freshman’s play was about the only thing that drew Izzo out of his seat in the final 10 minutes of the game, hooting and hollering as Davis hit the deck diving for a loose ball.

“I felt good,” said Izzo, who’d practically dared Davis before the game to do exactly that. “When I saw him go on the floor, I said, ‘That kid’s growing up, man.’ He’s making progress.”

Shooting for No. 1

So is this team, clearly, with eight wins in the last nine games — seven by double digits — to put the Spartans squarely back in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (A No. 2 seed in the Midwest — with the regional in Chicago — might be preferable to a No. 1 seed in the South or West, by the way.)

A share of the Big Ten regular-season title still seems unlikely, but Michigan State is guaranteed a first-round bye in the conference tournament if it wins its final two games. And all that’s left is a date at Rutgers — a team that’s still winless in the Big Ten — followed by Saturday’s Senior Day finale against Ohio State.

“But we’re not done pushing buttons,” Izzo reminded. “I mean, we’ve got a large ladder to climb here.”

Izzo knows plenty about what it takes to climb the ladder in March, of course. But even as he promises more pushing — rebounding, free throws, and so on -- you can tell he feels this team is more than capable. Probably more so than any other in recent years, the way the Spartans shoot the ball, and defend it.

MSU�s big men earn high marks from Izzo

The players certainly feel that way. Valentine called Michigan State the “best team in the country” on Sunday. Yet even after the rout, Costello said the shower-room conversation between him and Valentine and sophomore Marvin Clark, who seems to be finding his game again at just the right time, was about what didn’t go right.

“Yeah, we’re playing well,” Costello said. “But we don’t even feel like we’re playing well, if that makes sense. We still see all our mistakes and where we’re messing up. Where we could play a perfect game, but we’re playing 75-80 percent.”

After 29 games, the Spartans hope there’s still another 20 percent left this season. But if the end of February is any indication, another march is about to begin.

“If we can keep growing and just not let any distractions (get in the way), I think we’ve got a chance to make a run here,” Izzo said. “And that’s what it’s all about this time of year.”