EAST LANSING, Mich. — If you value your personal space and the standard arrangement of your skeleton, it may be inadvisable to make Matt Costello happy. There the Michigan State senior forward was after a key blocked shot on Saturday, a swell of emotion turning him into a 6'9", 245-pound steel beam hurtling toward the sideline for a media timeout. Kenny Goins was the first to meet him. This also meant Goins was the first to suffer assault and battery, with Costello leaping into the 225-pound redshirt freshman shoulder-first, driving him to the floor and very nearly into intensive care.
And still this was not the biggest mark left by Costello in the delirious final moments of the No. 11 Spartans’ 74–65 victory over No. 7 Maryland. That arrived with four seconds left and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo declaring his captain’s work done for the night by sending a substitute to the scorer’s table. As the Breslin Center crowd howled, Costello once again bounded to the bench, where he wrapped his arms around his coach and hoisted him into the air, twirling Izzo in a pirouette lifted from La Bayadere, then setting the future Hall of Famer to the ground and adding a get-outta-here-you-rascal hair tousle for good measure.
“I gotta stop doing that,” Costello said, instantly delighting everyone with the idea that this may have happened before. “That was interesting. That’s one of those things I don’t want to relive.”
Put that scene on an endless loop for all time, and we may be better for it as a society. But Costello was right, whether he intended to be or not: The joyous hug was a time capsule moment, and time capsule moments get buried. His hug was about as far as the overreactions could go.
This was another game that demonstrated the futility of assuming anything in college basketball this winter. It was another result that underlined the need to underplay one single score as much as possible. Yes, the Spartans’ victory revealed that Costello is America’s most dangerous happy man. It revealed that Nike has a very profound disdain for retinas, what with Michigan State’s “Mean Green” gear looking like something salvaged from a horrible highlighter factory accident.
And it revealed little else. Maryland is probably still the best team in the Big Ten, notwithstanding 38.6% shooting and a minus-10 rebounding margin. Michigan State was going to remain formidable with a win or a fourth loss in a row because it was hardly at full strength regardless; point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. watched with his foot in a boot, working through plantar fasciitis that has bugged him all year, and Costello played on an ankle he badly sprained just a couple days earlier.
This was a win Michigan State desperately needed. This is a loss that may incite some urgency in Maryland, with fellow league favorite Iowa visiting next Thursday. But in the context of this season, where there is precious little separation between the top of college basketball and everything below, there’s a danger in thinking it meant anything more than one good night, one bad night and extra time in the ice bath for anyone in a two-foot radius of a certain Michigan State forward.
“I think we’re trying to dissect this one a little too much,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We lost to a team that was great at home tonight. They were terrific. The building was phenomenal. We were right there, though. I’m not going to make anything more of it.”
It’s convenient for Turgeon to say, but it’s also valid. The deluge of snow on the East Coast forced the Terrapins to linger in town overnight, but that’s the only reason Maryland’s minds should be stuck in East Lansing. North Carolina, Maryland, Oklahoma and Kansas have a combined 10 losses among them. Nine of those have come on the road. What happened to the Terrapins on Saturday is what happens to every good team, at least in 2015–16.
“Our goal is to win this conference and to win a national championship,” Terps forward Robert Carter said. “We don’t look at other teams. We look at our team. We have to get better. We let [voters] control who’s in the top 10, top 25 throughout the year, but at the end of the day, we get to control our own destiny. We can be No. 1 at the end of the year. It’s on us.”
This is not to say the past can’t be of some use.
It lives in Michigan State’s locker room, on three sheets of white paper hung just inside the main door. They display a trio of quotes attributed to Iowa players, following the Hawkeyes’ season sweep of the Spartans, punctuated by a 17-point loss on Jan. 14.
We threw the first punch in both games. The punch landed. - Anthony Clemmons
Just going back to toughness, we knew we were the better team from the get-go. And we wanted to go out and prove it. And we did. - Jarrod Uthoff
They fought us as hard as they could. I think they gave us their best fight. Both times. - Jarrod Uthoff
Michigan State suffered two one-point losses immediately after it hung some new artwork, so it can’t be said that the words turbo-charged Izzo’s crew. But they served as directions of a kind. No matter what the result, the Spartans couldn’t permit any opponents to echo those thoughts moving forward.
In that way, Saturday was a meaningful step, especially when the alternative was plunging to the first four-game skid since 2006–07; the three-game slide was itself the first since 2012–13. Michigan State was a half-step or a step quicker for most of the night, reflected best in the 17 offensive rebounds it corralled. Coming in, Maryland guards Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon ranked in the 94th and 88th percentile nationally as points-per-possession defenders, respectively, at least according to Synergy Sports Data numbers, and Bryn Forbes (game-high 25 points) and Denzel Valentine (19 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists) more or less got what they wanted for the better part of the evening. Costello didn’t even practice for three days after his ankle turned in a way ankles are definitely not supposed to turn against Nebraska on Wednesday. He nevertheless compiled an inspired 15-point, 12-rebound, three-block, two-steal line in 32 minutes of action.
“I thought I was going to play like 10, 15 [minutes], just because I wasn’t feeling that great,” Costello said. “The Lord put a little cast around my ankle and it worked out good.”
By the end, Costello was whipping himself into a frenzy after rebounds, let alone dunks or scores, and waving to the Breslin Center crowd, expecting a reaction in kind. But the Spartans’ energy was evident long before that, as they hopped and bounced through a pregame warmup routine looking anything like a team weighted down by a losing streak.
“I thought that was the hardest we played in years,” Izzo said. “We needed that kind of effort.”
Said Forbes: “To actually play like us ... is what probably feels the best.”
At his locker stall, Valentine beamed and talked about confidence and half-joked that his team didn’t remember what winning felt like. That much, they surely could and should take into a week that includes gettable games against Northwestern and Rutgers. And just as surely, a three-game win streak would reset the narrative about these Spartans, even if there truly is nothing that requires resetting.
Michigan State enjoyed a needed victory, but it wasn’t transformational. The Spartans were a good team, just waiting to get healthy, even without it. And in defeat, Maryland disabused no one of the idea that it could reach the Final Four. Such is this college basketball season, a maddening road that is forgiving and unforgiving all at once. And around and around the contenders go, not unlike a certain diminutive coach caught in a bear hug at Breslin late Saturday.
“I could use a ride every once in a while,” Izzo said of Costello’s embrace. “It’s not all bad.”
Not bad at all. And hard to forget, even though it’s best if he and his team try to do just that.