EAST LANSING - Aside from the salute to Jenison Field House, "The Game of Change," past Spartan greats and the Tuskegee Airmen, when it came time for Tom Izzo to discuss the level of basketball that his team played on Saturday night, Izzo ran a little short on compliments.
But he was also understanding.
"It's been a long week for us," Izzo said. "As I told my team, this week was five days of finals, two days of having every great player that ever played here back at practice, spending time with them. A concert before the game and then a game."
The 19th-ranked Spartans sputtered a bit through the middle stages of the game, and led only 33-26 at halftime before eventually racing to a 92-56 victory.
"I have never been through anything like this," Izzo said. "There has been a lot of falderal in different things that I've done, but in this one I was worried about how we would perform and my worries came true that first half. Thank goodness we bounced back.
"I thought we came out and got up 19-6 and did a decent job and missed a lot of open shots - a lot of open shots. And started turning the ball over a lot. In the second half, we played better."
Keith Appling tied his career high with 25 points, doing it on just nine field goal attempts.
Appling was 7-of-9 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range. He was 9-of-11 from the foul line, drawing several fouls with aggressive drives to the rim.
"I thought Keith played really well," Izzo said. "He did some good things. He pulled up, he took some short shots, he took some 3s, took some lay-ups. He only had three assists because nobody made any shots."
Derrick Nix notched the second double-double of his career, and the first since his debut as a freshman. Nix had 11 points and 13 rebounds. He also took in loads of constructive criticism this week (see notes below).
MSU committed a season-high 22 turnovers, marking the sixth time this year MSU has had 15 or more.
What Really Happened
1. HIGH TURNOVERS: If there are any mitigating circumstances surrounding the high turnover count, perhaps it's the fact that points guards Appling and Travis Trice had only two turnovers apiece. They were efficient with the push. MSU was more aggressive with quicker outlet passes and longer upcourt passes than at any time this year, with mixed results. The receivers sometimes came out of their comfort zones on offense, leading to awkward give-aways - but at least MSU got a chance to work on its transition game in a live setting.
MSU had 23 points in transition and scored a season-high 92 points. There were opportunities on the break and in the early offense, and the Spartans attempted to capitalize. The transition game looked good at times, but the MSU fastbreak is still in training wheels.
"We have a lot of work, and we have a lot of time to practice and no damn rules," Izzo said. "We're going to practice and practice and practice."
2. IZZO PISSED NIX OFF:Nix was a sponge this week. After finishing finals week on a good note, coming out of it on track to graduate in May, Nix listened to mentors such as Steve Smith and Kevin Willis, and even Tuskegee head coach Leon Douglas, a former power forward with the Detroit Pistons and former NBA first-round draft pick. Of course, Izzo got into Nix's ear a little bit too.
Willis, who played 22 years in the NBA, gave Nix pointers on reading defenses in the post and being more aggressive in looking for his offense.
During a pregame conversation between Izzo and Douglas, Nix happened to walk by. Izzo stopped Nix and asked Douglas to give his personal breakdown on the MSU senior center. Douglas told Nix that he needed to work on his footwork, meaning balance. Nix said Izzo and the MSU staff have been on him about that too.
At halftime of the game, it was Izzo's turn to break down Nix a little bit.
Nix played harder in the second half, and in turn reached a double-double. Izzo said Nix became a little winded once or twice, and asked to come out of the game for the first time all year. Izzo approved. "That means he's playing hard," Izzo said. "I like when guys ask to come out. That's the way it should be. Keith asked to come out once too."
"Coach told me that I wasn't playing with energy," Nix said. "I was like, 'What're you talking about? I have eight points and six rebounds.'
"And he was like, 'If you feel that way, then tell me that you think little of yourself. Go ahead. See how far you make it.'
"And I was like, 'No, why would I think little of myself?'
"And he just kind of pissed me off a little bit. So I just tried to turn it up. He pushed my buttons and I just had to play as hard as I could."
Now, his quota has gone up.
"Brandan Kearney came up to me after the game and said, 'You just set a new standard, Nix. You can't play like did before. You have to play as hard as you did tonight.'"
And after the game?
"Coach said, 'Oh, it takes me to say something bad to get you to play like that?'" Nix said. "Now that I learned, I'll probably get tired every game."
Nix was just 4-of-9 from the field. He showed progress by merely attempting nine field goal attempts, yet he still passed up one from point-blank range in order to kick it out for a 3-point attempt [resulting in a three-second violation for teammate Branden Dawson, who expected Nix to shoot it.]
3. IZZO COMPLIMENTED DAWSON:Branden Dawson had a team-high six turnovers. But Izzo approved of Dawson's energy level. He's been watching the sophomore closely, demanding more motor. Dawson gave it to him on Saturday, and Izzo gave him passing grades, regardless of the turnovers.
"He missed a couple of those bunnies, but he had nine rebounds and actually had a couple of hustle plays and it's a shame that he had six turnovers, but I thought getting him to get on the floor and do some of those things was one of the things we were looking for, so we made a little progress there," Izzo said. "What I liked about Branden tonight is that when he made a mistake he busted his tail to get back into things. He dove and saved that one. And stole that one.
"I think Branden knows what he can and can't do now. I think you will see him start to improve."
KEARNEY PLAYING HIS ROLE: Izzo complimented Kearney for being the player who is most effectively sticking to his role. Kearney had four points, three assists and no turnovers in 17 minutes. He was 2-of-3 from the field.
Kearney started the second half in place of freshman Gary Harris.
"Kearney right now is doing everything that I like," Izzo said. "Kearney has been the best player at playing his role. I think some of it because I haven't defined it enough with some of those guys but Kearney now is to the point that if he has a spot-up shot he hits it. He is the best post passer. He gets the ball in there. He is the best at going to the offensive board; even if he doesn't get them, he knocks them loose. He is pretty solid defensively. So I think the whole team feels Kearney has earned that. He has earned his minutes right now, and maybe even a few more. I like what he is doing."
HARRIS GETS TESTED: Harris was 1-of-7 from the field, but managed to score 10 points thanks to 8-of-8 from the foul line.
"Harris, Valentine and Byrd all struggled, especially Gary," Izzo said. "He had some wide-open looks early and just didn't make any.
"We have to see if Gary can handle some adversity. I didn't like the way he was playing. He had good shots, and really good shots the first four. Then he kind of got frustrated. I told him, 'You are not going to be able to do that in big games.'
"He had to do a lot of things this week. He had a big week of tests; he had never gone through that as a freshman. Meeting all of these players. I just think that there were distractions. He's been shooting it pretty good. It wasn't like he was a dog out there, he just didn't make shots and I thought it got to him a little bit. But he bounced back.
"Gary is a competitive kid but he has to realize that he and Denzel have been given a lot. When you are playing guard and you only have one veteran out there, those (freshman) guards are going to go through some tough times. I don't think we communicated real well in getting back. We gave them some open shots. There was some confusion there.
"I'm not worried about Gary. With his competitiveness, he'll be fine. But it was a good learning lesson that you had better bring it every night, and if you don't bring it every night coming up, we're not winning. And that's good. That's good pressure."
Adreian Payne recorded his third double-double of the season. The junior post man had 12 points and 10 rebounds. He also delivered some of the best outlet passes of his career, including a two-handed Kevin Love number which sent Appling free for one of the best dunks of Appling's career in the first half.
Freshman center Matt Costello turned in the best game of his young career. In only seven productive minutes, Costello had six points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot.
Costello looked good with a bouncy put-back, and later a two-handed jam.
Costello didn't play in the first half. Instead, sophomore Alex Gauna played seven minutes in the first half as the second big man off the bench. Gauna had three rebounds in 10 minutes for the game, and was 0-of-2 from the field.
Izzo on what's next: "I don't know about you but now we move into the point in time in our year when there are no more games that you should just win. Now every game is going to be a dog fight. We are on the road with Bowling Green and then it gets a lot tougher.
"I'm kind of happy that we're done with what we're done with. Bowling Green is going to be a dogfight. Then we have Texas here, and then the Big Ten starts. I'm ready for it. I don't know if our team is quite ready for it yet but I sure am. It's been a little bit more of a bizarre schedule, the way we want from highs to lows. So this is the right time of year to 'let's get going,' and if we don't play well we will get our brains beat in."
Izzo on the fans at Jenison: "It was a different group of fans. It looked like families. That was kind of neat. That's the one thing we miss sometimes with the corporate way that you have to do things now. They were fans that stayed to the end because they just wanted to see their Spartans and I appreciate that."