For the first time in the 17-year history of the Big Ten tournament, in-state rivals No. 8 Michigan (25-8, 15-3) and No. 22 Michigan State (26-8, 12-6) met in Sunday’s championship game.
Led by Adreian Payne’s 18 points and nine rebounds, the Spartans grabbed the Big Ten tournament championship from the Big Ten regular-season champions, the Wolverines, and showed the rest of the country how good they can be when at full strength.
1. Michigan State is FINALLY healthy
Officially, they’ve been healthy for a couple of weeks now, but in terms of production on the court, they have shown this weekend that they are at full strength.
MSU senior point guard Keith Appling has been back from his wrist injury for nine games now, and until this weekend, we haven’t seen the Appling that was conducting the Spartans’ offense. This weekend Appling was back to hitting the jump shot, showing confidence on both ends, and creating for others. MSU goes as he goes, and now that he’s back to 100 percent, this is a much different team.
Also, junior Branden Dawson has bounced back immensely from his broken hand. Since returning from his injury on March 1, in the last three regular-season games, Dawson was averaging 6.7 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game.
In the tournament, three games, Dawson averaged 15 ppg and 7.3 rpg. He is back to the do-it-all guy that he has shown glimpses of over the past three seasons, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
2. They go as Appling goes
I hinted at this already, but the Spartans are only as good as Appling is. When he’s at his best, not only is he as dangerous as they come, but the rest of the Spartans are very dangerous.
Appling has seemed to gain back his confidence offensively, which adds another attacker, and opens the rest of the floor.
His confidence will only increase with each game, and that make MSU that much more diverse.
3. Gary Harris is picking his spots
Harris, arguably one of the nation’s best shooting guards, has had an issue settling for 3-point shots this season. While he’s shown that he is an exceptional shooter, his ability to attack the rim in the half court is something that often goes forgotten.
During the tournament, Harris shot a total of 32 shots — only 10 were 3-pointers. Maybe having Appling back is opening up the floor for Harris, but regardless, it seems as if he is starting to understand he can open up his game more when he attacks other areas of the floor.
4. Denzel Valentine is growing up
Valentine didn’t have a great game against Michigan — three points, three assists and four rebounds — but his maturity as a decision maker has vastly improved. Prior to this season, and even earlier in the year, Valentine would often limit his playing time because of carelessness with the basketball.
Valentine didn’t turn the ball over once in the Big Ten tournament championship game, and in 88 minutes of play during the tournament, he only turned the ball over twice.
Turnovers have haunted the Spartans, along with injuries, for a good portion of this season, and when it gets to NCAA tournament time, you can’t beat yourself.
5. Tom Izzo was right all along
He was concerned, but never worried. He was happy, but never content.
Izzo never lost faith in his Spartans despite their health issues, late-season miscues and early-season off-the-court troubles. After the regular season finale, Izzo wanted to get into the tournament and play some games to get his team’s chemistry where it needed to be.
And not only did they just play some games, obviously they won, but they showed the rest of the country that they are as dangerous as advertised when at full strength.
Izzo knew all along what his team was capable of, and he never panicked when it came to the time it would take to put it all together. He had a grasp of the situation, and their convincing victory over Michigan, and their performance this weekend, proved why he is one of the best coaches in the nation.