Michigan State is headed to yet another Sweet 16; the 2012 version of the Spartans is a mirror image of previous years' teams -- full of grit, girth and intelligence.
In a Big Ten-type battle against a very well-coached and feisty St. Louis team, Tom Izzo's club once again displayed excellent perseverance and mental toughness. Unable to sustain its double-digit lead at the start of the second half, the Spartans relied heavily on senior Draymond Green -- as they have all season long -- to come up with one critical bucket and rebound after another. In the game, Green -- who against LIU Brooklyn became just the third player in NCAA history to record two triple-doubles in the tournament -- finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Perhaps the hidden beauty of this Spartan team, though, lies in centers Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. While great guard play often defines success for teams deep into March, having two effective -- if not spectacular -- big men in the middle is sometimes even more significant.
Payne, who is the far better athlete, is a 6-foot-11 jumping jack who protects the paint, while Nix has become a reliable low-post option and quality rebounder.
Against the Bilikens today, Payne threw down a vicious one-handed dunk and provided stellar interior defense -- on and off the ball -- of forwards Brian Conklin and Dwayne Evans, St. Louis' best overall athlete.
He and Nix also clogged the driving lanes of Kwamain Mitchell, the Bilikens' second leading scorer and best creator off the bounce.
Nix, meanwhile, had timely buckets and crucial rebounds once again for a Spartan team that ranks second in the nation in total rebounding. He and Payne combined for 14 points and 8 rebounds in 40 minutes.
The marked improvement of this roster is indeed one of the redeeming qualities of this particular Tom Izzo team. Payne and Nix were both massive recruits that up until the midway point of this season had mostly underachieved during their time in East Lansing. Green was always a solid player, but until his senior year, had struggled with weight issues and defense. Having lost 20 lbs. before the season, though, he has embraced the role of team captain and go-to player in every which way. His 16 point and 10 rebound averages lead Sparty, but he is also its unquestioned emotional leader.
"I look at [former Spartan Mateen] Cleaves, now Draymond Green is one of them," a very versatile athlete that is a good leader and a tough guy, Izzo told the New York Post.
Entering the Sweet 16 next week against Rick Pitino's uber-hot Louisville club, State -- the one seed in the West region -- will be in familiar territory. It doesn't have the sheer talent of a Kentucky or North Carolina, but it does have terrific team chemistry, the Big Ten Player of the Year in Green -- and of course, Tom Izzo, who remains as motivated to win as ever before.
"The biggest thing on my bucket list is trying to get in that fraternity of 10 -- try to go from winning one national championship to two," he added. "It's okay to be in the one of 45 or 50 guys, but I'd like to get in that one of 10 or 11."
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