Dienhart: Spartans met B1G tourney goal ... and then some

INDIANAPOLIS—If Tom Izzo had written a script for his Michigan State team in the Big Ten Tournament, he couldn’t have come up with a better scenario.

The Spartans were a team possessed in Indianapolis the last three days. This was a driven collection of players—and an even more driven coach–which was on a mission: Get on track for the NCAA tournament.

That goal was met … and then some. Sunday’s rousing 69-55 victory over Michigan in the Big Ten tourney title game was the emphatic exclamation point the Spartans needed after an often-dreary regular season that saw MSU go 12-6 and finish third after everyone on the planet had forecast a Big Ten championship. The win today made MSU 4-0 in Big Ten tourney championship games, also cutting down the nets in 1999, 2000 and 2012.

How bad did it get? The Spartans limped to Indianapolis having lost seven of their last 12 games and hadn’t won back-to-back game since January. Izzo was at his wits end, even going so far as to question this team’s moxie down the stretch.

[ MORE: Video: Spartans soar for big dunks in tourney final ]

But Michigan State eased the fears of many with a 67-51 thumping of No. 11 Northwestern on Friday, an 83-75 victory over No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday and then today’s domination over the No. 1 Wolverines, who had won six of the previous eight meetings including both this season.

And make no mistake about it: This was domination. MSU shot 50 percent and controlled the paint, scoring 38 points to Michigan’s 20. The Spartans also had 18 points off turnovers compared to the Wolverines’ 2. And MSU notched 16 fast-break points to Michigan’s 3.

It was the first time these rivals ever had met in the Big Ten tourney since the event was launched in 1998. And, it was fitting that the maiden meeting occurred on the big Sunday stage in the championship game before the nation’s eyes.

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Now, it’s on to the NCAA tournament, where Michigan State will be one of the most-dangerous and most-feared No. 3 or 4 seeds in the history of the Big Dance.

For all the plaudits tossed at the feet of the Big Ten in recent years, the league hasn’t won a national championship since Mateen Cleaves led the Spartans to the Promised Land in 1999-2000. That’s a long time ago—14 years ago, to be exact. Maybe this Michigan State can douse that drought.

Who is going to want to play this team? It was lauded for its depth of talent before the first sneaker was laced up this season. When Gary Harris and Adreian Payne eschewed turning pro and opted to return for their sophomore and senior seasons, respectively, Michigan State automatically became a national title contender.

Keith Appling also was back as a savvy senior point man, along with steady junior Travis Trice. Sprinkle in the man-child skills of Branden Dawson with the emerging skills of sophomores Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello and freshman Kenny Kaminski, and there was a lot to like about the 2013-14 edition of the Spartans.

Payne led the way today with a team-high 18 points and nine boards. Harris had 15. But it was the play of Dawson in Indianapolis that was most awe-inspiring. The 6-6, 225-pound junior swingman missed nine games after slamming his hand into a table while watching film in late January. Dawson failed to reach double-figures in his first three games back. But since arriving in Nap Town, Dawson has become a force. He tallied 16 points vs. Northwestern, 14 vs. Wisconsin and 15 vs. Michigan to earn tourney MVP honors. Dawson hit 21-of-28 shots (75 percent) and grabbed 22 rebounds in the three games, averaging 15 points.

Time and again, Dawson flashed to the hoop for a dunk or layup. His most electric moment came at the 16:57 mark of the second half, when Dawson took a pass from Trice and closed in for clean breakaway. Dawson finished with a tomahawk slam dunk that set off delirium and flashbulbs inside Banker’s Life Field House.

Yes, Dawson’s shooting skills lack polish. But he’s a unique athlete whose ability to run the court is unmatched. He’s so strong on the glass, so tough in the paint, so swift in transition … and he’s also so confident as Michigan State moves deeper into March. As the stakes get higher, Dawson will have to take his game to another level.

As Dawson checked out of the game with 56 seconds left, he embraced Izzo and lifted his coach off the floor. It was symbolic. Dawson provided a big lift to the Spartans on this day and throughout the Big Ten tourney. But the heavy lifting is just beginning, as Michigan State takes aim on the Final Four—a destination that Izzo has led the Spartans to on six occasions.

Michigan State is alive and well at just the right time of the season. What a script. What a story.

And it isn’t finished being written.

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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