March 16, 2014

Borton's Blog: Hurting and healing

Nik Stauskas looked like he'd been sewn into an oversized gunnysack with a dozen angry cats, Edward Scissorhands and a pair of rabid raccoons. He showed off gouges up and down both arms, around his neck, and every exposed area there to be clawed.

He looked like he'd lost the fight … and he had. The Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten champions saw the conference's weekend tournament literally ripped away from them in Michigan State's 69-55 victory in the title game.

This wasn't meant to be, right from the beginning. Before fans had reached into their popcorn - literally on the Spartans' first possession - Michigan saw its big man combo shunted to the bench with fouls. No offense to third man in Max Bielfeldt, but if he's drawing 13 minutes and shooting a pair of three-pointers, something's not right, barring a Michigan blowout.

Fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan knew it, playing only 20 minutes, and helplessly watching the Spartans execute their own special brand of bully ball. He clearly saw the irony following the early quick whistles, but knew he couldn't go too far.

"When I only get to play a half of basketball, it's kind of difficult," Morgan acknowledged. "They showed their physicality, getting offensive rebounds down low all first half. I don't know if it would have been the same, if I could have played."

A number of Michigan players spoke in code, with physicality the byword. They won't win many wrestling matches, and they know it well.

"They were just really physical," Morgan said. "They would keep people from getting in the lane. We only shot four free throws in the second half, and that wasn't good for us, with how physical they were playing."

It wasn't good for Stauskas, who didn't bleed out, but who also went an uncharacteristic 4-for-14 from the field, getting manhandled every step of the way.

"We started out hitting a lot of shots, then shots just didn't fall," Stauskas said. "I was trying to be too aggressive, getting to the basket. I know we were settling for threes a little bit, but I was going to the basket and they were in the gaps.

"They were being real physical with us, and we weren't getting any calls. There wasn't very much we could do."

To back the obvious frustration, Stauskas revealed his battle scars.

"You see my arms and my neck," he said." Physicality is going to have a lot to do with this game, and we've just got to play through it."

Sometimes, you can't. And Michigan didn't.

The got beaten on the boards, 38-28. They got beaten to lose balls. They got beaten on the scoreboard. And they got beaten up.

So the Big Ten champions took one on the chin, and retained enough teeth to credit an old foe for doing what it does best.

"This Michigan State team we lost to is terrific," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They have such experience. They have such athleticism. They have such a great coaching staff. For us to win two out of three this year, it was a great accomplishment. For us to win the conference was a great accomplishment.

"Move on, because we really feel good about what this team accomplished and the direction of our program."

That's classic, and classy, Beilein. Sometimes the old coach comments beyond the post-game compliments, though. If he gets a technical foul in a game, it's a pretty sure sign that something isn't right. When he says in an interview on the way to the halftime locker room that there must be different definitions of traveling (this after one Spartan took three full strides and pushed off prior to making a shot), there's a little extra bubbling underneath.

The good news? There wasn't a 24-hour rule on anger or feeling low after this loss. It was more like a 24-minute rule. The Wolverines absorbed the punch in the finale at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and immediately switched into bigger and better mode.

"I don't think this game really matters too much," Stauskas said. "We'd rather lose right now than have our season end in the [NCAA] Tournament. We want to congratulate them, they played a great game, but the best is ahead of us.

"They beat Michigan today. They're excited about that. I'm not going to say we didn't want to win this game. We wanted to win it, but looking forward, I don't think we're going to hang our heads low just because we lost.

"We're excited. We're going to the tournament right now, and we have another opportunity to make something special happen."

Moments after making those comments, Stauskas and the Wolverines saw more reason to be excited. They were headed to Milwaukee as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, with a chance to recapture the magic from last season.

It won't be easy, with Wichita State, Duke and Louisville all stacking the top of the bracket. But it's that time again - one and done, or win and keep on playing.

"Even after the game, I don't think anyone was hanging their heads too low," Stauskas said. "Obviously, we wanted to win this game, but the tournament is ahead of us. This is really the winning time now. You lose, and you go home. We're excited."

Beilein saw the focus fast-forwarded as much as anyone.

"We snapped out of it like that," he said. "We were really down after the game. Then all of a sudden, the media is done, and it's like, 'Hey. Let's go watch the selection show.'

"I've been in that room where you've lost the championship, and it meant you weren't going anywhere, or maybe the NIT. This is huge to walk from that room, and go see us in the NCAA Tournament. It's terrific."

Stauskas, who'd taken a forearm to the face during the game, saw much more clearly afterwards. He called MSU the hungrier team, but knows all appetites grow this week, even as wounds heal.

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