Niyo: MSU freshmen shake off stage fright in a hurry

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Tulsa, Okla. — Tom Izzo thought he’d seen it all in a Hall of Fame coaching career. But this was something new, all right.

Right off the opening tip in Michigan State’s NCAA first-round tournament game Friday night at the BOK Center, there was a whistle.

Freshman Nick Ward was called for a silly foul 2 seconds into the game. And the look on Izzo’s face on the visitors’ bench was one of utter disbelief.

“I was worried that our freshman would, you know …” he said, laughing without finishing the thought after his team’s 78-58 romp over Miami on Friday night. “I must’ve warned ’em 15 times, but we did some foolish things early.”

Some of it was nerves, certainly. Some of it might have been the matchup zone defense that Miami went to right away. But whatever it was, it was ugly.

Michigan State trailed by a dozen at the first media timeout. By the second, it had seven turnovers and eight points, feeding the Hurricanes’ lead by serving up a handful of layups and dunks with unforced errors.

“I mean, how could you start out worse?” Izzo said. “We just kept saying in the huddle, ‘We gotta quit turning the damn ball over.’ ”

Eventually, they did. And once things settled down, once the Spartans stopped settling for less, we finally saw more of what we thought this Michigan State team could be capable of this spring.

Michigan State overcomes early adversity, thumps Miami

And more to the point, we saw more of Izzo’s talented, tormented freshmen, as they nearly outscored Miami by themselves, the four of them combining for 57 points — a school record for an NCAA Tournament game.

“Once we stopped turning the ball over, that’s when our confidence went up,” said Miles Bridges, who finished with 18 points, including a couple “One Shining Moment”-worthy dunks, and nine rebounds.

Kids on the run

But what goes up always seems to come down with this group, and Izzo surely has had a hand in that, at various points, as he slogged through this crazy season, sending messages — and stifling confidence? — with some of his substitution patterns.

In last week’s Big Ten tournament loss to Minnesota, he played freshman point guard Cassius Winston only 12 minutes, wholly unimpressed with his defensive effort. But Friday, it was Winston who helped spark the Spartans’ turnaround, playing 14 minutes in the first half alone and finishing with no turnovers for only the second time all season. Izzo called it “a little coming-out party,” and not just because there was a catering tray of chocolate cake waiting outside the Spartans’ locker room after the game.

This was the debut for Michigan State’s freshmen on the big stage, and after a frightful start, they managed to flip the script in truly dramatic fashion. Asked afterward if he could remember a tournament game that played out quite like this, Izzo had to go all the way back to 1999 and that regional final win over Kentucky in his second NCAA trip.

In all, the Spartans scored on nine of 10 possessions in a 6 1/2-minute span just before halftime Friday, as they stormed back from that early 12-point deficit. The freshmen scored 25 points in a 30-8 run, and Izzo, for a welcome change, let it roll.

“A helluva run,” he called it.

They never really looked back, either, which is another step forward for this team. Ward dominated in the paint once Miami went away from the zone, finishing with a game-high 19 on 8-of-9 shooting, and Josh Langford’s early scoring burst to start the second half provided a lift as well. The Spartans shot 56.6 percent from the field against a Miami team that held Duke to 50 points a few weeks ago.

And the defense — a sore point in recent losses — didn’t let them down. They’d worked all week to tweak the ball-screen defense that had been such a nightmare for Winston and Ward. Both of them played it better against Miami — Ward dramatically so — and the end result was arguably the Spartans’ best collective effort of the season.

“I think that’s kind of a microcosm of our season,” Langford said. “A lot of adversity earlier in the season prepared us for times like this now.”

In Izzo they trust

The auditions are over now, they all knew that. But with the curtains raised on the postseason, they actually remembered their lines.

“We gotta trust the process,” said Ward, who also grabbed seven rebounds and finished a plus-26 in 26 minutes on the court. “Coach knows what he’s doing, so we really just had to trust it.”

This time of year, that’s generally a good idea. Because in a season full of firsts for Izzo, this was one he was intent on avoiding. In this 20-year NCAA Tournament streak, Izzo has yet to lose in the first round in consecutive seasons.

Friday, he added to his own NCAA record with a 14th win as a lower-seeded team in the tournament. And now his team will get a crack at a monumental upset Sunday facing top-seeded Kansas on what might as well be its home court with all the Jayhawks fans converging on Tulsa.

But regardless of the long odds there — Izzo referred to Bill Self’s team as a “buzzsaw” Friday night — what happened in this game sounds like it will resonate.

“I mean, they responded,” Izzo said. “So no matter what happens now, they responded. They kind of proved to themselves — against a good, quality team — that they could get down and bounce back. Is that gonna be an every-day happening? Well, it’s still a process here. But do they have a benchmark now to say, ‘Hey, we did this, we did that?’ I think the answer is yes.”

9 Michigan State vs. 1 Kansas  

When: Sunday, 5:15 p.m.

Where:  BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.

TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 20-14, Kansas 29-4

At stake: Spot in Midwest Regional semifinals against Purdue-Iowa State winner. @JohnNiyo