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Niyo: Spartans hope to grow from season’s bumpy ride

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Tulsa, Okla. — The seeds for this were planted a long time ago. Long before the NCAA tournament selection committee filled out its bracket and handed Michigan State one more headache in a season full of them for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.

And if their ears were ringing Sunday, as No. 1 seed Kansas started to pull away late, urged on by an arena jam-packed with the Jayhawks’ fans, well, at least they were used to it by now.

Michigan State made a game of it for a long time Sunday, just as the Spartans had done all season, extending themselves while extending this program’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak. But when it was over, it was time to acknowledge once more there were limitations this team simply couldn’t run past, any more than it could get by this explosive Kansas squad that improved to 30-4 on the season with Sunday’s 90-70 victory at BOK Center.

“You know, with 12 minutes left it’s a one-point game, and with 7 minutes left, it’s a five-point game,” said Izzo, whose team never could pull even in the second half. “And then they just took over.”

There were myriad reasons for that. Nick Ward was plagued by foul trouble, Miles Bridges was struggling with a hip pointer, and this Kansas team — with freshman star Josh Jackson (23 points) bringing all his talents to bear on the game in the second half — simply is a more talented bunch.

But when it was over, the jerseys untucked and the postgame speeches tucked away for safe-keeping, Izzo wanted to make one thing clear about what he has repeatedly called the most challenging season of his career.

Late Kansas surge leaves Michigan State in its dust

“I love those guys,” he said, nodding to the locker room where players were still milling about. “They gave me everything they could give me. They went through more things, with more injuries, than any team I’ve ever had, with more pressure on them. When you think of the weight of the world on those guys — carrying the streak, living up to expectations, people kind of jumping off the bandwagon — they hung in there.

“I don’t like those guys. I love those guys. They made every alum at our school proud, I’ll tell you that. The way they handled themselves in the classroom, off the court, and on the court, people should be damn proud.”

Getting the message

The players had heard something similar behind closed doors, both from their head coach and from famous alum Draymond Green, who’d taken a detour to cheer on the Spartans before joining his Golden State Warriors teammates for a game in Oklahoma City on Monday night.

And judging by the players’ reactions, the message resonated.

“We don’t want this feeling again,” freshman point guard Cassius Winston said. “I felt like we had a talented enough team to make something happen in this tournament. But we’ve got a lot of pieces coming back next year, and we’re gonna get in the gym, we’re gonna get it together and we’re gonna be ready.

“But this is part of life. You take your bumps, you take your bruises, and you learn from them. This season we learned from everything.”

They dealt with just about everything this season, with injuries depleting the roster — from Gavin Schilling early to Eron Harris late — and a brutal road schedule putting them behind the 8-ball almost from the start.

Izzo joked that it felt like “poetic justice” Sunday when his star player, Bridges, left the court wincing after suffering a painful hip injury. But Bridges, determined to make a difference in what might have been his final collegiate game, returned and helped stem a late Kansas run before the half. A 3-pointer by Joshua Langford and three free throws by Bridges, who baited Lagerald Vick into a foul with 2 seconds left, cut an 11-point lead to 40-35 at the break.

“I had to fight through for my team,” said Bridges, who finished with 22 points and eight rebounds. “That wouldn’t have kept me out for the world. I had to play this game.”

Jackson, his longtime friend who nearly became a teammate at Michigan State, seemed equally motivated Sunday. And it was Jackson who played a huge role in closing this one out, scoring six quick points after the Spartans closed to within 54-53 and later slamming the door with an emphatic dunk with 2:05 to play.

“I do think in the tournament it’s nice to have a player or two or three that when things don’t look good, they can go score six points in three possessions when you really run bad offense,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who also got the usual brilliance from player of the year candidate Frank Mason III. “And that kind of happened with us tonight.”

Bigger and better

That didn’t happen enough with this Michigan State team this season. And that’ll be the offseason chore now, as the Spartans try to build on the foundation they laid. Green’s postgame orders were to “get in the gym and go to work,” and for the freshman, they all have a pretty good idea now what they need to work on.

Izzo, meanwhile, already was talking about payback. He watched his team get pushed around more than he cared to this season, and “eventually size gets to you,” he said, whether it’s on the boards or defending the post or in any number of other areas. Next year, he’ll have Schilling back to help Ward inside, along with a pair of highly-touted recruits, including five-star forward Jaren Jackson.

“So everybody can kiss my, um, ear, as far as not having enough bigs next year,” Izzo said, smiling. “Because I’m gonna have enough bigs, and I’m gonna beat the hell out of some people. There’ll be some paybacks on that. We’re not getting outrebounded again in my life. That was a frustrating part for me this year.”

But all that frustration seemed to fall away once this team made the tournament, and then made a splash with a win over Miami (Fla.) here Friday. And unlike the stunned silence after last year’s upset loss to Middle Tennessee State, or the excruciating end after a Final Four run the year before, there was mostly upbeat talk about the future once this game had slipped away. Even if Bridges leaves for the NBA, as expected, the core of this team will be back, and better for having endured what it did the last six months.

“You have no idea what this year was like,” Izzo said Sunday, shaking his head. “But when I say that, I think everybody takes that as a negative.”

Sometimes, it is. Other times, it’s something else, though. And Sunday night, as the Spartans headed home to East Lansing, this was one of those times.

“You have no idea,” Izzo explained, “what a rewarding experience it was for me.”