Tom Izzo walked off the Value City Arena floor Saturday without showing much emotion. If you didn’t know, you might not have guessed that moments ago his No. 11 MSU men’s basketball team upset No. 3 Ohio State 58-48 and moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten.
The hoots and hollers from the winning locker room he was headed to could be heard from around the corner, but Izzo hadn’t started celebrating just yet.
Finally, one of the Ohio State fans who hadn’t left early caught Izzo’s attention before he disappeared into the tunnel.
“Good game, coach,” the fan said. “You out-toughed us all night.”
It didn’t take James Naismith to see what happened Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. Whether it was mentally, physically or emotionally, MSU (20-5 overall, 9-3 Big Ten) was the toughest team on the court.
When the Buckeyes’ superstar Jared Sullinger committed one of his ten turnovers and yelled at any referee he could find, the Spartans were running the other way to wear down their opponent. And when things got rougher and rougher inside, MSU kept feeding the post, outscoring Ohio State 30-12 in the paint.
The defense was suffocating and the rebounding was about what you would expect from an Izzo-led team.
But this was the conference-leading Buckeyes, winners of 39 straight at home and legitimate National Championship contenders.
The Spartans didn’t care.
Izzo took it easy on his guys Friday and Saturday morning, when they had the best walkthrough he’s seen since before beating No. 1 seed Louisville in the 2009 Elite Eight. But senior forward Draymond Green said that wasn’t before he and his teammates displayed some of the toughness that showed through Saturday earlier in the week.
Exhausted by the rigorous Big Ten schedule, MSU kept battling.
“One of the days, everybody was kind of tired,” Green said. “And we fought through it and had a great practice. I think that was the key to (Izzo) kind of toning it down a little bit.
“Even though guys were tired, we fought through it the entire time. That’s what you got to do.”
That’s what the Spartans did Saturday. When the Buckeyes threatened to make the game theirs by cutting MSU’s lead to four with less than five minutes to play, the Spartans punched back harder and closed out the win.
Much was made about MSU’s gameplan Saturday because the Spartans accomplished a couple things most teams wish they could, holding Ohio State to 26.4 percent shooting and frustrating Sullinger all night. Izzo deferred most of the credit to his assistants, saying, “They come up with the gameplan, I just give it to the players.”
“It worked for us today.”
But as impressive as the plan and execution was Saturday, the Spartans didn’t reinvent the wheel in Columbus, Ohio. They simply out-toughed Ohio State.
The anonymous Buckeye who yelled to Izzo shouldn’t feel too bad, though. It wasn’t the first time MSU has done that to an opponent this season.
Don’t bank on it being the last.
Jeremy Warnemuende is a men’s basketball reporter for The State News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.