EAST LANSING - The Legend of Draymond Green grew on Sunday. And with it, the story of the 2012 season gained pace as well.
Five days ago, when he hopped off the court on one foot due to an injured knee, many of us wondered if we would ever see him in green and white again.
Oh, we saw him again. We saw him as we had never seen him before.
Three days earlier, Tom Izzo knew for sure Green would play against Michigan. But Izzo admitted he didn't know what version of Green he would get. Izzo welcomed a one-legged Green, even if he could only muster 15 or 20 minutes.
But Green had a different vision for his Super Sunday.
When asked on Friday how many minutes he thought he could play in this game, Green responded with a question of his own: "How many minutes do I usually play?"
"Thirty-something," a reporter said.
"Thirty-something," Green repeated with a nod, as if to say that's what he expected to play.
But who expected that he would dominate? Who expected that he would be the best player on the floor, and get as many rebounds (16) as all the Wolverines combined?
He wasn't just an emotional boost during Michigan State's 64-54 victory over Michigan. He was a physical and tactical force.
He was so good that even Michigan's coach hailed him.
"A lot of young men, their career ends when they go down like he did the other day," said Michigan coach John Beilein. "I'm not happy he beat us, but he had a very good game against us. He has always been a tough matchup for us but he really played his best today."
As game day approached, the aching in Green's knee subsided. The swelling went away. Apparently, he didn't even need a pain killer. "He got a shot," Izzo said, "without getting a shot. That's what adrenalin will do for you."
That's what a rivalry game will do for you.
That's why Izzo had a half smile on his face and half tear in his eye as the teams got set for tip-off Sunday. Yes, Izzo kind of teared up BEFORE the game. He, too, was not sure he'd ever see No. 23 on the court again.
There would be no limping. No Willis Reed moments. Green felt good. All he needed to do, he said, was not get too keyed up prior to tip-off.
"You can't let yourself get too amped up for games like this, or it can take you the other way," he said. "I think one of the problems I had in Ann Arbor is that I was so amped up for the game that it kind of drained me out. I didn't want to get over-anxious for this game and let it drain me out again."
Even a senior like Green, who has played in two Final Fours and a National Title game, can learn a little lesson late in a college career such as this.
There were other corrections to come.
Green has been involved in two Big Ten title-clinching moments. He has cut down the nets at two NCAA Regional Finals. He has beaten UConn at the Final Four before 70,000-plus at Ford Field. But this little regular season game in the middle of the Big Ten season had the feel of a legacy moment for him.
He has had far greater accomplishments than beating Michigan. But he would have no greater humiliation in his career than if he were to lose to Michigan again. That's a strong motivator.
"I didn't want to be the guy," he said, "that you look back on and said, 'He went out losing to Michigan."
With the victory, Draymond helped enable MSU fans to walk the streets. The alternative for Green was akin to walking the plank.
He put pressure on himself. Immediately after Michigan State's loss at Michigan on Jan. 17, he said he would mark Feb. 5 on his calendar as a date of unfinished business.
"One thing I told you the last time was I'm going to figure their defense out," Green said. "I remember everything I say; I don't just talk outside of my neck. I said I am going to figure their defense out and I'm going to do better against it."
He could have kept that to himself. But he voiced it publicly to fans, media, teammates and enemies more than two weeks ago. Then when he was asked about it again on Friday - knee be damned - he didn't back down from those words, and even increased the ante.
With all that pressure, all the doubts due to the knee injury, against a good, Top 20 team, anyone could have expected Green to try to do too much, force some shots, commit too many turnovers and gas out on defense.
Instead, he played like a legend.
In the first meeting, Michigan frustrated MSU and Green by double-teaming him, and rotating efficiently around those double-teams.
In this game, Green anticipated the double teams. In Sun Tzu fashion, he tried to be more wise in dictating to Michigan WHERE the double teams would take place.
He took them out farther from the post. If they wanted to double-team him out there, it would leave more openings for passes to cutting teammates.
Once Michigan grew wise to that, the Wolverines decreased their commitment to double-teaming him. Sometimes they doubled him; sometimes they didn't. Green was eager to read the defense and operate appropriately.
Green would back his opponent down near the post - usually operating against a smaller Zack Novak. If the double-team came, he would read and pass accordingly.
"I just knew where the double-teams were coming from, when they were coming, what you can do against that double team as opposed to just getting the ball and passing it out," Green said. "
If Michigan didn't double-team, Green would set up the single defender for turn-around jumpers along the baseline.
Green wanted to make his reads somewhere outside of the double-team's comfort zone. He found a sweet spot in the defense, able to get close enough for his turn-around jumper, but not so close as to draw a double-team.
"I knew if I don't go too deep in, if I get it off the block just a little bit, and don't go too deep to where the double-team becomes a factor, I knew that (the turn-around jumper) would be there every time," Green said.
He nailed one over Novak to make it 34-22 with 17:30 to play. And another to make it 47-37.
When Michigan tried to go big with Evan Smotrycz on Green, Green posted him up, read him, faced up and drove with a strong dribble. Meeting little resistance from Smotrycz, Green ducked under him and scored a power lay-up in a manner which seemed almost unfair.
Beilein retreated back to a small lineup.
"They just pounded the ball in the post and some of the teams we have played, we have been able to deal with some of that, and today we couldn't," Beilein said.
The True Triumph
Draymond's true triumph on this day didn't come in the form of his 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting, or his 16 rebounds. It didn't come in the form of his gentle turn-around jumpers and four assists. It wasn't his return from injury, or his slaying of Michigan. The best thing that came Draymond's way on this day was a product to whatever he did in the past 1,400 days for Austin Thornton, and in the past 1,000 days for Derrick Nix, in the past 500 days for Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Russell Byrd, and in the past 230 days for Brandon Wood, Branden Dawson, Brandan Kearney[db] and [db]Travis Trice.
Whatever he has done for those guys - as a teammate, a captain, a mentor and a friend - they wanted to return it to him - with interest - on Sunday against Michigan.
When Green's teammates learned at mid-week that their days of playing with Green were NOT over, and that they would indeed get a chance to battle again alongside their captain, it pumped their souls. Knowing what this game meant to Green, the battalion clicked together strong as steel.
Everyone dug down a little deeper, played a little more focused on defense. They hit the boards harder, communicated louder.
Izzo loves for his teams to play for past Spartans, to play for the program, to defend the honor of Michigan State. But a special level of commitment and personal sacrifice takes hold when teammates start playing for one another. Playing for Draymond Green wasn't the only galvanizing force for MSU in this game. They all wanted to beat Michigan. They all wanted to stay near the top of the Big Ten standings. But the extra focal point to rally around Draymond Green increased the chemistry level to a lethal dose.
Green knew they would rally. He says that's why he spoke so confidently on Friday after practice. He knew something we didn't. He knew his guys.
"You can't say something and not back up your word; I'd be less of a man if I promised something and not do what I can to come out here and back it up," he said. "But it wasn't all me. I knew I would have my guys ready and get my guys ready to play. I knew the coaches would give us the best game plan possible to come out here and beat them. I knew all of those things. I knew I would have my guys giving the effort that it takes to win the right way."
Green's call to end Michigan's win streak reminded Izzo of Travis Walton's campaign to ensure that the seniors of 2009 weren't the first class of the Izzo era to finish a four-year career without a trip to the Final Four. Coaches will tell you today that Walton willed that team to Ford Field. When Walton issued commands, the teammates followed.
Izzo loves the fact that when Draymond issues commands, this team follows. These are championship components that Izzo hopes to have every year, but only occasionally receives. On Sunday, that component was stronger than at any point all season.
During a stoppage in action midway through the second half Green started yelling at Brandon Wood with one of those fierce, smiling, eyebrows-bent diatribes that only work when it is friend-to-friend. Green yelled and yelled and yelled at Wood. Wood nodded, smiled and yelled back.
"I was just trying to make sure he stays motivated, make sure he keeps his confidence," Green said. "You handle different guys differently. Brandon is more of a laid-back type of guy so I think yelling at him gets him going more, kind of sparks him."
Wood played one of his best all-around games of the season, despite being demoted to the bench after a sluggish game at Illinois.
"He responded well," Green said. "He didn't get down about coming off the bench. He came off and played the game as a Spartan and that's what we needed."
This is Green's team. He knows their buttons. He's at the controls. His team. That's a good thing.
Many Izzo axioms come to mind.
Players play, but tough players win. Check.
Defense and rebounding are the keys to victory. Check. Check.
A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team. Check.
All of those staples of Michigan State basketball were on display in this game. Each of those staples is improving.
MSU led by 17 with less than three minutes to play. The final score showed a 10-point margin of victory. But everyone knows this game wasn't that close.
All that this does is make the Spartans feel like they finished a job, but can do it better.
"We wanted to beat them really bad," Green said, "but a couple of things went their way and we didn't really get the margin of victory we wanted. It's okay. Yes, I wanted to blow them out."
Michigan was 7-of-22 from 3-point range. Beilein said Michigan needed to hit a few more open 3-pointers if it wanted to win a game like this against Michigan State. A few more? Like what, four more? So it would take an 11-of-22 level of marksmanship from 3-point range to draw even with MSU? Fifty percent from three-point range on 22 attempts?
Good luck with that.
Hitting open threes is important. And when Michigan is hitting them, the Wolverines can compete with anyone.
But I'll take emphasis on defense and rebounding as the more sound, reliable approach toward achieving championships. So will Izzo. So has Izzo. His team is better in those areas this year than most anticipated. It has enabled Michigan State to hover in and around the national Top 10. The good news is that team defense was tremendous against Michigan, but can still improve greatly.
"Everything is fine and everything is back in place," Green said, we think, in reference to his knee. "The world is back in place."
Okay, maybe he wasn't talking about his knee.
But we should make the point that one victory over Michigan doesn't mean MSU is back in control of the rivalry any more than UM's 1-point victory in Ann Arbor meant the Wolverines were in control. It means two quality Big Ten teams split their home-and-home series.
Now, Michigan State sets out for more nets, more banners. They are building toward becoming a heavyweight contender in conference and nationally.
"We are still playing for a lot more than just beating Michigan," Green said. "We are playing for everything. In order to compete for a Big Ten championship, you have to take care of your home court and that's what we did."
Tag Team Power
The rest of February and March looks better today than it did last week for Michigan State, and even better than it did during the 15-game win streak earlier in the year. This team is improving, physically, structurally and cohesively. The help that Green received from his teammates on Sunday, especially his tag-team partners Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, is a major reason for MSU's stock-on-the-rise status.
Nix and Payne served as heavies within Izzo's special ops plot to corral Michigan point guard Trey Burke. Nix scored 6 points and Payne scored 5. But together, their defensive efforts helped keep Burke out of the lane during Michigan's ball screen plays.
Burke scored 11 points. Burke wasn't bad, but MSU was successful in curtailing his offensive opportunities.
Much of Michigan's offense has been predicated on Burke receiving a ball screen at the top of the key or on the wing. He uses the ball screen to drive to the rim for baskets, kickouts to open teammates, or dump-offs around the rim.
MSU sought to cut off his drives before they got started. MSU was successful in doing so, thereby limiting his drives, his pull-ups, his kickouts and dump-offs. Much of Michigan's offensive arsenal went down the drain with it.
How did MSU do it? First of all, Keith Appling was good as the primary defender.
"Trey Burke got the best of Keith in the first game," Green said. "Keith said it wasn't going to happen again. Some things that he did in the first game were unexpected, but today we knew what he was going to do and he (Appling) stepped up to the challenge and did a great job."
From there, Nix and Payne took turns as well-trained helpers in ball screen defense.
"Ball screens was a big part of their game and it was something that we kind of struggled with in the first game," Green said. "But the way our bigs covered those ball screens this time, they did a great job on it."
Michigan center Jordan Morgan normally sets the ball screens for Burke.
When Nix guarded Morgan, Nix didn't step out too far to trap and stop Burke.
If Nix comes too far out, Burke can use that against a defense and slalom his way to the rim.
On Sunday, as opposed to the first meeting, MSU asked Nix to play Burke laterally. He leveled Burke off so that he couldn't turn the corner and penetrate.
Burke had a little window to shoot a jumper off the screen 3-point range, but MSU was coiled to contest it. If he made contested, pull-up jumpers from range, then MSU would have to salute him and rethink its plans. But he never did. In fact, his shot attempts were down from his average.
MSU played its tasks from inside-out. Keep Burke out of the lane first. Have Green or a helping forward in Morgan's vicinity to discourage the pass to the roll man second. Then have Green or a forward in the area tag out on Novak or Hardaway third.
The third part is dangerous. To do it effectively, wing defenders like Dawson and Wood had to be down and ready and smart and on-time, tireless and determined. They had to be aware of the men they were guarding, yet cognizant of Morgan rolling to the lane and ready to close out on dangerous shooters Hardaway and Novak.
"It's a matter of giving multiple effort," Green said. "We always say, 'Overwork.'"
Wood and Dawson have occasionally been pretty good on defense this year. But MSU needed them to be better than "pretty good" for every minute of this game.
Wood met the challenge. Dawson almost did.
Dawson was tremendous in the first half. He was a completely different player than what he showed in the first meeting at Michigan, in terms of defensive awareness. Frankly, he has been a different player ever since that game. And with it, MSU has crept close to its ceiling of potential.
However, Dawson suffered a relapse five minutes into the second half on Sunday. After his high-effort put-back gave MSU a 12-point lead, he fell asleep for an instant on defense.
He allowed Hardaway to get free off a pindown screen. Dawson signaled for a switch with Nix on the pindown. MSU did not gameplan to switch a center onto Hardaway during pindown screens in this game. Nix knew not to switch. That was Dawson's man.
Dawson needed to be down lower in his stance, anticipating the downscreen, moving his feet earlier to combat it. And he needed to hustle over the screen (and get a hedge help from Nix on the catch). Instead, Dawson was late, and a little lazy in calling for the switch. Hardaway was left wide open from 16 feet and made his lone field goal of the game.
Izzo was not pleased.
That little breach from the gameplan was like an addict falling off the wagon. It didn't matter that MSU was up 10 or that Dawson had just scored, or that he had played well in the first half. It was a breach, a lapse in focus, a lapse in will. Izzo yanked him off the floor and he sat for 9 minutes.
You want to know why and how Izzo is so good at getting his crap together by mid-March in most seasons? This is how.
You can't ask a player to please play within the construct of the defensive game plan, and please try harder.
You have to sit their butts. Even the McDonald's All-Americans. Especially the McDonald's All-Americans.
In the end, Dawson graded out very well in the 20 of the 21 minutes he played. But MSU needs 21 out of 21 from him. And if he complies, the 21 can become 31. Somewhere during that process, MSU will inch closer to its potential as a team. But MSU can't get there by allowing breaches.
It's the Izzo way. And it yields banners.
As for Nix and Payne, they will be patted on the backs of their necks like good doggy dogs.
"If I had to give stars out, it would be my two big guys," Izzo said. "Keith Appling did a great job on (Burke), but my two big guys did an unbelievable job in how we wanted to guard those ball screens. I thought Nix and Payne were both really, really good."
The bigs - the heavies, the role players - come out of this game feeling like they can carry out a mission. Somewhere Aloysius Anagonye and Antonio Smith are nodding their approval.
Izzo calls it block/elbow coverage. From the nail (the middle of the foul line) to the elbow, and down to the low block: Cover it. Don't allow enemies or pass through without severe harassment.
Controlling that area is like controlling the center of a chess board, or the line of scrimmage in football. Michigan emphasizes the three. That's fine. MSU wants to own the lane.
"It was important that we get our identity back," Izzo said.
Michigan State emerges from this game with a stronger sense of itself, not because the Spartans owned the lane against Michigan, but because Michigan seemed to back down from engaging. They seemed to cower. They were relegated to desperation heaves.
"They really have a lot of ways of taking you out of what you want to do," Beilein said.
Despite Michigan State's 15-game win streak earlier in the season, which resulted in the Spartans rising to No. 6 in the country, MSU had many loose ends that needed tightening. Thanks to a loss to Northwestern and a loss to Michigan, the Spartans were shown some of their flat spots. MSU went to work on getting better defense out of Dawson and Wood, and more sharpened, defined energy from Payne and Nix.
Hardaway, a good player, has had big moments against various teams, including MSU. But the Dawson who guarded him on this day was a different man than the one Hardaway saw just three weeks ago. So was Brandon Wood. Even Green was wiser.
Michigan has had fun in the past year or so, using MSU as a measuring stick, winning a few games, aspiring to be the best team in the state and attempting to stay near the top of the Big Ten.
When MSU was the team trying to defend and protect what it had, MSU played tight, played like the hunted rather than the hunter and the Wolverines caught the Spartans a few times. And the celebrated like mad.
Now that Michigan had a win streak and status to protect, the neighborhood didn't feel so glamorous. When Michigan was getting bruised and battered physically in this game by a team that was defensively trained and choreographed to choke out Michigan's offensive system better than anything the Wolverines have seen in at least two years, one gets the sense that the Wolverine players left Breslin with a greater understanding of why all those banners hang in the rafters at Breslin. When Izzo has a coachable roster, the Spartans improve at a steady clip during the middle-to-late portions of the season. It was a convincing lesson.
MSU's victory will make life in Twitterdom and talk radio-land livable again for Spartan fans, and even MSU coaches and players.
This victory for MSU does not "put Michigan back in its place" or restore order or any of that nonsense. It just allows MSU to move on, feel good about improving as a team, feel good about applying a gameplan and finishing task and focus on coming opponents and challenges without being weighed down by nagging in-state guerilla rhetoric.
The challenge of controlling the paint will be far more difficult in upcoming games against Ohio State. But MSU's chest is pumped out farther than before, with talented role dawgs feeling better about their jobs, and eager for the next assignment.
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