The city of Indianapolis has been good to the Michigan State Spartans, and the trend continued Saturday.
In its third game against the Ohio State Buckeyes in as many weeks, No. 2 seed Michigan State pulled away from the No. 7 seed Buckeyes to advance to the Big Ten tournament semifinals for the sixth consecutive year. The Spartans used yet another second half run to power its way to an 81-54 victory, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s fifth consecutive victory over Ohio State counterpart Thad Matta.
Michigan State, playing its first game in six days, was caught kicking off the rust a bit in the first half. Senior guard Denzel Valentine and freshman forward Deyonta Davis powered the Spartans to an early 17-7 lead. The two teams traded buckets until a Marvin Clark three set the Spartans up with another 10 point lead, 25-15, with 8:15 left in the contest.
But the Spartan offense was next-to-stagnant from that point until halftime. They finished the half stuck in a 2-for-14 drought and limped to a 33-26 lead at the break. Shooting only 35.5 percent from the field, the Spartans needed an adjustment.
“The first half was really uncharacteristic of ourselves,” Valentine said. “We were taking bad shots. We were complaining. We were out there, not being ourselves.”
“The ball wasn’t moving,” Izzo said. “It was kind of, I don’t know, herky-jerky, I thought. And my whole staff felt that way. We didn’t feel we were in sync the whole first half, even when we got up 10 or 11.”
As he has in each game against the Buckeyes this season, Izzo was forced to give an impassioned halftime pep talk to his players after a lackluster first half. And as they have in each of those games, the Spartans responded.
Led by Wooden Award candidate Denzel Valentine, who had another near triple-double (19 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), the Spartans started the second stanza with an 8-0 run, forcing Matta to call a timeout just two minutes after the break.
“In the second half we settled down,” Valentine said, “got the shots we wanted. And we got on transition too, and that led to easy buckets.”
More efficient offense would follow, thanks to stellar defensive play. The Spartans played with a higher attention to detail on defense, which helped create those easy transition buckets. Davis (12 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks) blocked a Keita Bates-Diop shot right into Tum Tum Nairn’s hands, who took it coast-to-coast for two of his four points and a 45-28 MSU lead.
Valentine credited Davis’s improved play in the second half as a reason for the ballooned lead.
“Deyonta Davis, he was really good in the second half,” the senior captain said. “He was blocking shots, talking, being around the rim on offense. He was great for us in the second half and led to us getting that lead.”
From that point on, the margin would never get closer than 14 points, and Izzo was able to sit his starters for the final few minutes of the game. Two garbage-time baskets from Matt Van Dyk and one from Javon Bess capped off the 27-point victory for the Spartans, who became the favorite in this tournament after No. 1 seed Indiana’s upset loss to Michigan.
Matta, in his 12th year at Ohio State, beamed when asked if Michigan State had a shot at the national championship, saying “I think that team right there is one of the best that I have seen.”
But Izzo isn’t ready to crown his team just yet.
“The great part about the Big Ten right now is it could be harder to make a run in the Big Ten than in the NCAA Tournament with the teams that you have to play,” the 21-year head coach said. “This tournament still has a lot of great games left. And I’m excited about it. I think we have our work cut out.”