In Tuesday night’s big interstate showdown, conventional wisdom held that a more expereineced player would provide the key to either the Michigan Wolverines or Michigan State Spartans winning.
As it turned out, the victorious Spartans were led mostly by freshmen during their blowout of the Wolverines. Gary Harris (17 points, 4 rebounds) Denzel Valentine (7 points, 9 rebounds) and surprising Matt Costello (8 points, 6 rebounds) contributed the biggest daggers. Derrick Nix, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson, while excellent in their usual starring roles, each recieved a larger than usual helping hand from the youngsters.
The path to Michigan State’s success in March is now looking clearer than ever. Continue to get big performances out of this trio of freshmen, and the Spartans will likely go a long way. It’s a long standing tradition with Spartan basketball. In 2005, Drew Neitzel emerged and played well in the tournament, helping Michigan State to the Final Four. In 2009 it was Draymond Green making a name for himself, with huge baskets and put backs. During 2010′s run, Nix played an important role down low, though he was still a pudgy, developing freshman a long way from making a consistent impact.
In all of those cases, upper class players led the way, but one freshman played an important role in netting some vital March victories. This season, the Spartans have three players each capable of making this same unique impact. Harris, if he continues to develop and stroke three pointers while being an aggressive defender, could be the ultimate x-factor during tournament time and a blossoming superstar. Valentine, in a spot role with sophomore Travis Trice, can contribute huge minutes off the bench and bite teams with his range, graceful inside game and rebounding.
Perhaps the biggest unsuspecting contributor of the group, though, could be Costello. He’s been garnering more minutes from Tom Izzo lately, given his development. Against the Wolverines, his output was outstanding, and Costello looked the part of Michigan’s Mr. Basketball. Expect him to see more time against Nebraska. As everybody knows, the key to Michigan State playing winning basketball is post play first. Adding one more body to the mix capable of doing damage down low during March will only provide a boost to the Spartans’ already excellent depth and toughness.
When all three of these young players are firing on all cylinders at the same time, Michigan State looks the part of a serious national title contender. With Appling, they’ve got the guard play. Nix provides the senior leadership down low while Adreian Payne can be a matchup nightmare. Dawson’s finishing ability around the rim and shooting is a huge plus. Add to that each of these rookie contributors who provide streaky shooting, solid rebounding and toughness. If all are able to gel at the same time, watch out.
As shown powerfully to the nation on Tuesday night, that’s precisely the element which can turn a solid, middle of the pack February team into a tournament juggernaut come March.
Player Of The Week: Gary Harris, G, Michigan State. Against the Wolverines, Harris was simply not able to be guarded. He scortched the nets on 5-9 shooting from three point range, leading to 17 points. He pulled down four boards and contributed three assists. If ever there was a coming out party for a young player, this had to be it. Should the Spartans enjoy these types of confident performances from Harris moving forward, they’ll be a tough team to beat no matter who they play.
Game Of The Week: Indiana at Michigan State, Tuesday. With apologies to the Spartans’ match up with Nebraska and the Wolverines’ date with Penn State, there is no one game in the immediate future of the Big Ten that means more for the standings than this one. Indiana will be ranked within the top three teams nationally. Michigan State should be nipping close on their heels. If the Spartans win, they’ll likely have the inside track to a Big Ten title. Should the Hoosiers prevail, the race would remain very dramatic to the finish. Expect another charged up Breslin Center crowd and plenty of Spartans hungry for revenge after January’s close loss at Assembly Hall. It should be a classic.
Stat Of The Week: 8, the number of points Glenn Robinson III has scored in his last three road games. In each of those losses combined, Robinson has shot terribly, only going 3-16 from the field. He’s only contributed nine total rebounds as well. Those numbers are way too low. If there’s one particular player the Wolverines need to get going in order to right their ship, it’s certainly Robinson. He needs to show up for road games as if they were being played at the Crisler Center.
#8 Michigan State 21-4 (10-2 Big Ten)
#4 Michigan 21-4 (8-4 Big Ten)
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax