Niyo: Freshmen power MSU's tournament push

John Niyo
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The tradition called for Senior Day, and it ended with a misty-eyed, sentimental touch at the Breslin Center, as senior guard Eron Harris checked in with 11 seconds left — his right leg still immobilized after suffering a season-ending knee injury a week ago — to kiss the Spartan logo at center court goodbye.

But the urgency called for something else Sunday. And the reason Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s got his wish in the end — “I prayed we’d be up enough that I could get Eron in,” he said after Michigan State’s 84-74 victory over No. 16 Wisconsin — was the reason this team is still has a chance to do something in March.

This was Freshman Day, really, as most days are now for the Spartans. And after Izzo had finished exhorting the crowd in a postgame ceremony, “Don’t quit following now, because the best is yet to come,” he was busy extolling the virtues of his young team.

It was the beginning of February when Izzo first broached the subject with his players, acknowledging what he called the “elephant” in the room. Michigan State’s run of 19 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances — the nation’s third-longest active streak — was in jeopardy. And rather than ignore it, Izzo went against his better judgement and tossed another log on the fire.

“I’m not the easiest guy to play for, everybody knows,” he said. “And it’s not the easiest to play in a (program) where you’ve gone (19) straight times, the NCAA Tournament is slipping away, and the pressure’s on. Those things are all harder than you guys think, or know.”

Righting the ship

But now Izzo knows he was right all along. Now he knows that this highly touted freshman class of his really is something special. Because after three-plus weeks and one more devastating injury, the Spartans (18-11 overall, 10-6 Big Ten) find themselves right where they need to be at their favorite time of year, solidifying their NCAA Tournament resume Sunday with another win over a ranked team — albeit a fading one in Wisconsin that has lost four of its last five.

Spartans spiff up resume with takedown of Badgers

“They thought they were gonna take that 19 straight, and they thought they were gonna take it away from us,” a raspy-voiced Izzo yelled into the microphone Sunday as the Breslin Center crowd roared. “And these guys wouldn’t let it happen.”

Not yet, anyway. And not without a fight, as Sunday’s determined effort against the Badgers proved, with Michigan State’s freshman quartet again leading the way, combining for 58 points, 27 rebounds and 13 assists, along with an assortment of bumps and bruises. Each team was whistled for 22 fouls Sunday, but that didn't quiet the collisions inside with Miles Bridges and Nick Ward against Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ.

But it went beyond the stat sheet, too, and that's what Izzo was talking about after the emotions had settled somewhat Sunday night.

He was more impressed with his young team’s perseverance than its passing, though "for us, 11 turnovers is awesome." Amid all the foul trouble Sunday -- Ward, Bridges and fellow frosh Josh Langford all played with four fouls down the stretch -- his team also kept its poise, including a 21-of-23 effort at the foul line, where they'd struggled for much of this season. (Ward, a 57-percent free-throw shooter this season, was 4-for-4.) And while Izzo was happy with the way the Spartans outrebounded the Badgers, he was happier still to talk about the way his players have rebounded from adversity.

Ward got benched as a starter for a game following the Michigan loss a couple weeks ago, “and he stepped up," Izzo said, after the freshman center finished with 22 points and nine rebounds in 19 minutes. "He has been consistently a much better player since."

Cassius Winston has been, too, with 29 assists against eight turnovers the last four games. And after Izzo told his assistant coaches he wanted to have Winston guarding Wisconsin’s notoriously clutch guard Bronson Koenig at crunch time Sunday, “I told Cassius after, ‘Did you ever think that day would come?’ And we laughed.”

And why not laugh a little, after all they’ve been through, from the brutal early schedule to the season-altering injuries?

“Nobody’s kidding anybody, guys,” Izzo said. “I haven’t been able to say it, but we have a shell of our team. You know it. I know it. It’s been hell on those freshmen. It’s been hard on us. But we’ve handled it. We’ve survived it.”

Learning experience

They’ve survived it because these freshmen brought some toughness along with all that talent, as promised. And you could hear it in Winston’s voice just as clearly as you could see it on the court Sunday, when the freshman point guard ran the pick-and-roll to perfection with Ward to push the lead to double digits with 1:44 to play. Ward drew a foul on the play, then flexed his biceps as he headed to the line while the Michigan State bench erupted along with the Izzone student section.

“I definitely feel like we’re getting more comfortable,” Winston said. “We’ve been through a tough season. I don’t think a lot of freshmen have been through a season like ours. But the coaches stay on us, they ask more from us, and we’ve stepped up to the challenge.”

As for that elephant their coach introduced them to a while ago? Well, they haven't forgotten it. They've just sort of ridden it, if you will.

“The kind of team we are, we don’t need any secrets, we don’t need to be babied,” Winston said. “Just tell us how it is, and we’re gonna go get it. He told us that our NCAA eligibility is on the line, and for the most part, I think we’ve stepped up to the challenge. We’re not done yet. We’ve still got a lot to do, a lot to accomplish.”

But what happened Sunday, after everything that happened before it, sure felt like a reward in itself.

"I’m proud — that’s the best word I can give," Izzo said. "And what happens from here, who knows?"