Just wait, they said. When Michigan State gets to full strength, they’ll be the best team in the country.
Those prognosticators might have finally been validated Saturday, as the Spartans showed what kind of full-strength force they can be, taking down Wisconsin, 83-75, for a trip to the Big Ten Tournament title game.
The expected dominance hasn’t come as formerly injured players returned to the lineup, as Michigan State posted just a 5-7 record over its last 12 games. Though up against Wisconsin in the conference tournament semifinals Saturday, everyone found out just how good Tom Izzo’s team can be.
The Spartans had six players score in double figures, led by the 18 of Adreian Payne. Even Keith Appling had 10 points, just the second time he scored in double figures since the end of January.
Michigan State shot 56.9 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from 3-point range. It was an impressive offensive display, one that saw the Spartans lead the Badgers by as many as 21 in the first half. Though Wisconsin fought back admirably, whittling the lead down to six at one point late in the game, Michigan State had this one wrapped up.
Sparty had more of everything than Bucky: points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks. You name it, the Spartans outplayed the Badgers in that category. It was a dominant performance, the kind everyone expected all along.
But the Spartans themselves? They think things can get even better.
“I think we're just scratching the surface because we didn't play at a high level before. We just haven't had time for everybody to play together a long period of time so we can get our chemistry together,” Payne said. “This tournament has been great because we've been able to play with each other more, and we're starting to look better. We're just trying to get better each day, and by us having a game every day, we're getting a chance to play with each other and get better.”
It sets up a title-game battle with Michigan, the in-state rival that kicked off the Spartans’ up-and-down close to the regular season, a team that beat the Spartans twice during the regular season. And though it’s an intriguing matchup, the nature of this Michigan State team over the past month and a half means it’s still relatively unpredictable.
If the Spartans play like they did Saturday, it will surely be a phenomenal game, and we can declare Izzo’s bunch officially back. Though, there were plenty of times over the past 14 games we’ve been ready to do that only to see a puzzling loss follow.
Have the Spartans figured things out? Will they be the dominant tournament force everyone anticipated? Hopefully we’ll get some answers on Sunday.
“You know, it's Michigan,” Payne said, “and we're just excited to be able to play them again.”