Dienhart: Welcome back, Michigan State

INDIANAPOLIS–I’d like to be one of the first to welcome back Michigan State. I have missed the Spartans.

The Big Ten tourney has been Michigan State’s chance to trumpet its return from what largely was a moribund regular season that saw the Spartans go 12-6 in Big Ten play. That’s good by some school’s standards. But not for MSU.

The postseason is the second season, a do-over. And the Spartans are taking advantage. First, they blasted No. 11 seed Northwestern on Friday, 67-51. But Michigan State was even more impressive Saturday in dispatching No. 2 seed Wisconsin, 83-75.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface because we didn’t play at a high level before,” said Adreian Payne. “We just haven’t had time for everybody to play together a long period of time so we can get our chemistry together. This tournament has been great because we’ve been able to play with each other more, and we’re starting to look better. We’re just trying to get better each day, and by us having a game every day, we’re getting better.”

Now, it’s on to play Michigan in the Big Ten tourney championship game on Sunday. It’s the first time these schools will meet in the 17-year history of the event. Amazing. This will be the Spartans’ second trip to the title game in three seasons, as Michigan State won the championship in 2012 by beating Ohio State in this same venue.

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No doubt, this season has tested Tom Izzo’s patience and resolve. Michigan State opened the season as the AP No. 2 team. Ask anyone with a college basketball IQ back in November who would be a Final Four team, and “Michigan State” rolled off his or her tongue.

This team was loaded with talent, as expectations teemed. Why not? Look at the roster: Gary Harris … Adreian Payne … Keith Appling … Branden Dawson and on it goes, an embarrassment of riches for what is the most talented squad in the Big Ten.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As February dawned, Michigan State was on course at 19-2. But a funny thing happened on the way to cutting down the nets on a Big Ten championship: injuries.

Payne had an issue with his foot. Dawson broke a hand. Harris had an ankle owie. Appling dealt with a bad wrist. And on it went, an exasperating chain of events that proved ruinous to those Big Ten regular-season championship dreams, as MSU finished third in the Big Ten.

Chemistry was disrupted, roles changed and things just generally got out of whack, as the Spartans went 5-7 in their final 12 games en route to that 12-6 conference finish.

Izzo even questioned the team’s toughness late in the season. And that’s an area of an Izzo-coached team you never thought he’d question.

Now, the page has been turned. The regular season is history. This is the postseason, a chance to start fresh, a new beginning. And the Spartans are embracing it.

“We’re getting closer to playing the way I’d like to see us play,” said Izzo. “We ran, we defended pretty well early. Probably the only negative that I see right now on this team is the fouling situation.”

Luxury problems.

On this day, Michigan State was relentless, showing its famous full fury of energy, athleticism and want-to that have come to define this program under Izzo’s stewardship.

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The Spartans had six players—yes, SIX—in double-figures. Payne led the parade with 18 points. Dawson had 14; Denzel Valentine and Harris each had 12; Travis Trice chipped in 11 and Appling notched 10.

Michigan State shot well, hitting 56.9 percent of its shots. From 3-point range, the Spartans shot 53.8 percent. They won the battle of the boards (32-28), the battle in the paint (30-28), the battle for second-chance points (14-6), the battle for fast-break points (15-6) and thus the battle for supremacy on this afternoon, when they led by as many as 21 points.

In many respects, this was a vintage performance by an Izzo-coached team. Michigan State was tough, strong and relentless, showing superior athletic ability and skill in whisking aside Wisconsin.

Wisconsin may have had a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney had it made a run to the Big Ten Tourney title. Still, this loss doesn’t figure to do much to the Badgers’ NCAA seed, which figures to be a No. 2. Wisconsin’s body of work glows. In fact, it should be enough to earn the Badgers a spot playing in nearby Milwaukee for the second- and third-rounds of the NCAA tourney.

There is no shame in losing to this Michigan State team, which looks to be catching fire at just the right time for a long March ride as it hopes to improve its NCAA seed a bit. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com has MSU as a No. 4. Could it rise to a No. 3 if it wins on Sunday?

“We have to get better defensively and communicate, and I think that’s important for us,” said Dawson. “We’ve been playing great, our chemistry has gotten a lot better, Keith [Appling] is playing with a lot of confidence, and him and Travis [Trice] are pushing the ball more, and our chemistry is looking great.”

This is going to be fun.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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