INDIANAPOLIS -- It’s that time again in college basketball.
Time for the Michigan State Spartans to shed their worries, to play at a dramatically different level, to become the most stubborn out in the postseason. Time for big shots and big stops, tenacious rebounds and pinpoint passes, ferocious blocked shots and timely steals. Time for laser focus on the scouting report, crisp walk-throughs and a sharpened sense of purpose at tipoff.
Time to win or go home -- and Tom Izzo’s teams tend to win in those situations.
The seventh-seeded Spartans crushed second-seeded Purdue 74-56 Friday in the Big Ten quarterfinals, sewing up an NCAA tournament bid that at several points in this dysfunctional season seemed out of reach. They eked out a close victory Thursday against Iowa, limped out of that with a few battered bodies, appeared in over their heads against a Boilermakers team that already had beaten them twice -- and then dominated the game from the opening tip.
They led 10-2. They led 21-10. They led 37-23 at halftime. They pushed the lead to 20 just a couple of minutes into the second half, then rolled to the final horn without Purdue ever coming closer than nine.
“Day-Day,” Lucas said, “let’s beat them by 20.”
It was a preposterous thing for Lucas to say, considering he didn’t even participate in the team walk-through after rolling his ankle Thursday against Iowa. Lucas got treatment on the ankle last night, got out of bed Friday morning, took one step and said, “Man, it’s sore.”
So he got more treatment all day, but nobody was sure how much he could do against the Boilermakers.
Naturally, he went off for a career-high 30. Nobody from the state of Michigan has looked that good on a bad wheel since Isiah Thomas in the NBA Finals in 1988.
“Kalin’s a warrior,” said teammate Delvon Roe. “The way he played through the ankle pain was phenomenal.”
That’s what players do at Izzo Time. Lucas shrugs off an injury and burns up the nets. Roe, who has the right knee of a retired NFL player, shrugs off the pain of playing back-to-back nights to produce eight rebounds and four blocked shots.
“He sits up here and says Kalin’s a warrior,” Green said of Roe. “That’s what he is.”
At Izzo Time, there are warriors everywhere in green and white. There’s freshman Keith Appling hitting two 3-pointers. There’s Durrell Summers hauling down eight rebounds. There’s Mike Kebler making a key steal and hammering home a dunk. There’s Derrick Nix bodying up on Purdue center JaJuan Johnson.
There’s a 13-loss team suddenly looking like it can go to yet another Final Four.
For months, the warriors were worriers. They were snorkeling through an awful season, underperforming after starting the season ranked second in the nation. They lost so often that Michigan State found itself in uncharted territory for the first time in years -- sweating it out on the bubble like a bunch of commoners.
“For the first time, honest to God, I saw it [Thursday] night,” Izzo said. “I think the mental strain that’s been on this team since the end of January kind of got to us a little bit.”
But a team that went to bed Thursday mentally fatigued woke up Friday with renewed vigor. The walk-throughs and film sessions at the team hotel were so sharp that they reminded Izzo of the 2009 regional final, when the locked-in Spartans upset top seed Louisville to go to the Final Four.
“There was just a focus,” Lucas said, “from [player] one to 15 and from the coaches.”
That’s because it’s Izzo Time.
But Michigan State has had so many letdowns and disappointing losses this year that you won’t catch the coach getting overly dazzled by this performance. His wariness is well-earned.
“We’re breathing, but we’re not out of the water,” he said. “We’re not at the beach, I can tell you that.”
Izzo vowed to have the postgame smiles of his players wiped away by the time the Spartans got back to their hotel room. But he was happy to see them after so much drama and trauma this year.
“They should smile,” Izzo said. “They earned it. They earned their way.”
Earned their way to the NCAAs, and they could be the most dangerous 19-13 team that tourney has ever seen. At Izzo Time, you never count out the Spartans.