It is late February and the Spartans are playing for a Big Ten Championship.Â Â Weâ€™ve grown used to the late-season anxiety over the years; MSU basketball and championships have become the norm in East Lansing.
Nothing was expected from this group.Â I publicly said before the season started on the Phalanx (Spartan Nation message board) that I didnâ€™t think MSU would be anything more than a couple games over .500.Â Shows you what I know... and I wasnâ€™t the only one either.Â MSU didnâ€™t appear in the preseason top 25.Â Everyone knew that the Big Ten was loaded this season, but this year is truly special for the nationâ€™s best basketball conference; everyoneâ€™s good.
After last seasonâ€™s expectations (preseason #2), I didnâ€™t think MSU had the horses to compete in a loaded up Big Ten Conference.Â I should have known better.Â All of the Izzo factors came together for this team over the course of the season.Â When stepping away from this team and analyzing them with pen and paper, it is nothing short of a modern miracle.
- They have had decent point guard play from both Appling and Trice.Â Appling always had the ability to impress with his quickness, but Triceâ€™s command of the offense in game situations is years ahead of his freshman eligibility.Â Most impressive is that MSU has been winning without him as he recovers from a groin and an ankle sprain; his availability could impact the post season.Â Appling is the best on-the-ball defender in the Big Ten.
- The leadership from Draymond Green has been compared to Mateen Cleaves.Â More impressively, he has been the Spartans unquestioned leader playing the power forward position.Â It is easy to lead as the teamâ€™s point man, but he has been the point man doing it from all over the courtâ€¦ as a point / power forward.Â The team goes as â€˜Day-Dayâ€™ goes and he has been the best floor leader in college basketball.Â Guys like Austin Thornton have emerged and also become more demonstrative on the court following his lead.
- The Nix / Payne tandem is arguably the best 1-2 big man punch in the nation.Â Both do very different things.Â Payne can be dominant and then disappears.Â If he could learn to play consistent he could be an unbelievable force.Â Nix looks like a UPS truck parked deep in the paint and he just flat out delivers.Â He is this Spartan teamâ€™s biggest surprise.Â He is a difference maker.
- It is hard to come in as a freshman and be a star at MSU.Â Few have truly made the impact their first season like Branden Dawson.Â He has found his calling as a slasher and a rebounder.Â He has been ruthless on the glass.Â He scores the ball around the goal like Raymar Morgan and slashes like J. Rich.Â I have maintained that the small forward or â€˜3â€™ position is the biggest mismatch in college basketball.Â MSU has found their mismatch.Â Dawson is nothing short of a star.
- Defense wins championships.Â If MSU wins the Big Ten regular season title, it will be because their defense has been lights out.Â Midway through the second half in West Lafayette, Purdue was shooting 5%.Â I thought it was a misprint on my screen until the announcer let the home viewers know that it was accurate.Â This is the same team that waltzed into C-Bus and turned Sullinger over ten times.Â The team defense is arguably the best during the Tom Izzo era.
- MSU is back to punishing teams on the glass.Â This is one of the many keys to assembling Izzoâ€™s green giant.Â His system doesnâ€™t work unless everyone buys into the +10 on the glass philosophy.Â Michigan State looks like the Spartans when they are cleaning the glass and dunking the ball on the break.Â This is what overwhelms teams in the NCAA tournament.Â They are not prepared for MSUâ€™s grit, toughness and determination to snatch the ball out of the air.Â It can be demoralizing.
- When Izzo dismissed Allen and Lucious from the team, I feared theyâ€™d struggle to find depth.Â When Garrick Sherman transferred, I thought their â€˜bigsâ€™ would be a bit thin.Â When Delvon Roe called it quits, I didnâ€™t believe theyâ€™d replace his production.Â Well, I was wrong.Â Austin Thornton has stepped up.Â Brandon Wood has been a solid contributor.Â Travis Trice has been good.Â Alex Gauna has been a contributor. Â Brandan Kearney has played so little.Â He will likely get more minutes come tournament time.
This team is poised for a deep tournament run.Â Theyâ€™ve got their hands full with their remaining regular season schedule.Â Â A Big Ten Championship would be special.Â It would be hard to argue that this hasn't been Izzoâ€™s best coaching job.Â They are playing as well as anyone in the country.