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Column: Michigan State basketball is the danger

January 25, 2019

IOWA CITY — Tyler Cook could not be stopped. Iowa’s junior forward from St. Louis had simply dominated Kenny Goins in the opening minutes of the second half Thursday night, scoring on short jumpers, jump hooks, and power baseline moves. At the 16:01 mark of the second half, Cook’s short jumper gave him 11 points in four minutes, and the No. 19 Hawkeyes held a 50-42 lead over the No. 6 Michigan State Spartans. 

Venerable Carver Hawkeye Arena was shaking. 

Then, as quickly as it started, the music stopped. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was asked postgame what they did to adjust and try to stop Cook, who it seemed like was going to single-handedly bring down the No. 6 team in the country.

“We did something that you gotta do in basketball, we tried to guard him,” Izzo said, incredulous.  “It was a joke, I mean my God, I could’ve scored in there. You’re laughing, I’m serious!”

What followed could only be described as an avalanche. 

Cassius Winston hit two threes on consecutive possessions to quiet the crowd, Aaron Henry swooped for a lay-up in transition to awe the crowd, and Matt McQuaid started to pick off individual members of the crowd with his long-range assault. Ten points were scored on fast breaks, as Nick Ward outran his matchup down the floor. By the time Iowa’s Luka Garza hit a three-point shot to allow the Hawkeyes to emerge from the snow, it was over.

In a flash, the Spartans had turned an eight-point deficit into a fourteen-point lead. 

Whoosh.

This was the type of second half performance that Michigan State was capable of, but hadn’t shown yet on the road. They had faltered at Louisville, held on at Rutgers and Ohio State, and out-toughed Nebraska in Lincoln. But nothing this definitive.

This was a championship performance.

“We’ve been down in games like this. For example, last year we were down 27 (against Northwestern). We always keep fighting,” Nick Ward said.

A young team probably doesn’t win this game. They probably shrink and get swallowed up by the roar of the crowd. When Ward and Winston were freshmen, they lost road games at Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio State, unable to stem the tide of a home team going downhill.

But this is a Big Ten championship team. The banner from last year’s regular season triumph hangs in the Breslin Center right now.

Fair or not, the comparison for this Michigan State team won’t be last year’s 30-4 team, or Denzel Valentine’s Big Ten championship team, or Mateen Cleaves’ national championship team.

It’s down US-23 in a little town called Ann Arbor. No. 5 Michigan has gotten off to an excellent start this season, starting 17-0, but fell Saturday at Wisconsin and needed a controversial buzzer beater from Charles Matthews to escape at home against Minnesota. While they’re not playing their best right now, the Wolverines are absolutely the barometer by which this Spartan team will eventually measure itself by.

When this team talks about playing against both the opposing team and the crowd, they’re sort of talking about Thursday night. They’re also sort of talking about Feb. 24, when the two top-10 instate rivals get together in Ann Arbor.

“That’s a good feeling. When (the opposing crowd is) going crazy, you take the lead, and they go completely silent,” Ward said, smiling.

They’ll have the opportunity to silence the crowd in Ann Arbor next month. For now, they’ll have to prove their championship mettle against teams like Iowa. Games like Thursday night don’t win you the Big Ten, but they sure can lose it — and Izzo has made it crystal clear that his number one priority is the Big Ten regular season championship.

At the end of a long postgame answer about what makes MSU so good, Winston got to the heart of it. When the transition is going, it allows the Spartans to set up their defense. When they set up their defense, it leads to more transition.

“Sometimes, that turns into eight, nine, ten stops, that’s when it gets dangerous.”

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When Crisler Arena opens its doors on February 24, the question on everyone’s lips is: which team will be the one who knocks?

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