Spartans made for March

MINNEAPOLIS – Michigan State would like people outside the Big Ten to know what the Big Ten already knows – the Spartans are different.

They have athletes. They like to run. They can make pretty plays.

The Big Ten just doesn’t let them.

Usually around this time of year, teams from other conferences are more yielding – more willing to go up and down. And the Spartans prove, as senior guard Travis Walton put it, that they play “the type of game people thought we couldn’t play.”

Sunday’s second-round meeting between No. 2 seed MSU and 10th-seeded USC at the Metrodome was that type of game for the first 32 minutes or so.

Then it became what high-pressure NCAA games often do: a grinding test of wills. And for all the Spartans’ emphasis on running and angst over the perception that they can’t, this 74-69 win was about superior halfcourt defense.

The Spartans have it when they need it. And it’s the best thing to have as they look to the Sweet 16, Kansas and beyond.

“In the second half, especially toward the end, we had some intense huddles. Coach [Tom Izzo] said all we have to do is make some stops, get some stops,” said Walton, whose career-high 18 points provided the surprising offensive difference for the Spartans. “At the seven-minute mark, everybody came to the huddle and … said we’ve got to make some stops right here.”

USC, a team with No. 1-seed talent in some spots, scored eight points for the rest of the game. The Trojans didn’t have a basket in the final 4:36, didn’t have a point in the final 3:53, missed their last eight shots and came up empty on their last six possessions.

“They guarded us at a high level,” USC coach Tim Floyd said, “and they deserve credit for that.”

It certainly didn’t help that Trojans star forward Taj Gibson fouled out in just 23 minutes, scoring three points – two days after hitting all 10 of his shots and scoring 24 points in a rout of Boston College.

The foul issues limited Gibson. So did the expert positional defense of Michigan State center Goran Suton and the alertness of teammates ready to help and crowd Gibson.

It was a thing of beauty for those who love defensive basketball. Sometimes, it seems that fan club is restricted to Big Ten coaches.

“I think what always works at tournament time is your defense,” Izzo said.

Michigan State is not unlike Pittsburgh, with its ability to defend and rebound like a football team – and unfortunate tendency to play offense the same way for stretches.

The key is versatility, the ability to play different styles – as the Panthers did in their win Sunday over Oklahoma State.

Robert Morris coach Mike Rice, a former Pitt assistant who played the Panthers this season and lost to Michigan State in the first round Friday, agreed afterward that they are alike. He hinted that the Spartans might be a tad better.

The reason is speed. The Spartans have it in bunches, starting with point guard Kalin Lucas. But fans have to watch closely in January and February to detect it.

Since a young Izzo team led by sophomores Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson ran through the Big Ten in 1998, coaches in the conference have known the key to beating the Spartans: Make them play slow.

Floyd called Michigan State “the best conversion offensive team in the country.”

Really? In the country? A Big Ten team?

“They get it out of the net and get it from one end to the other with a purpose better than any team in basketball,” Floyd continued. “They also convert off of misses better than any team in basketball and convert off of steals better than any team in basketball.

“But I am sure all of you in Michigan have heard that from every coach that they played against.”

The league has earned its reputation. Some call it great defense. Others call it dreadfully boring. When Michigan State beat Wisconsin in the 2000 Final Four in a nasty 53-41 game, all of press row called foul.

Then, of course, those who hadn’t watched much of Michigan State assumed the Spartans couldn’t possibly run with Florida. The result: MSU 89, Florida 76, in a game that would have been more lopsided if not for a Cleaves ankle injury.

That’s versatility. And this team has it, too.

The Spartans can defend. And execute their halfcourt offense. And rebound. And run. And win more games in this tournament.

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Updated Monday, Mar 23, 2009