EAST LANSING, Mich. — The enigma gave way to the enforcer.
Derrick Nix played the game of his life Saturday in Michigan State’s 67-56 win over Texas. The 6-foot-9 senior center had career-highs of 25 points and four steals to go along with 11 rebounds.
It was a day-and-night difference for Nix, who had seldom looked to score before this game, being content in his role as the Big Ten’s third-leading rebounder and maker of sharp passes.
Beyond adding emphasis to his offense against Texas, there was more constant energy and emotion. One of his quietest baskets impressed me the most.
He was bobbing around on the perimeter, setting picks before making a quick observation on the play developing. Nix sprinted to the basket, picked up a loose ball and scored an uncontested bucket.
That’s called heads-up basketball. It’s called being relentless. That’s what Nix, a former Mr. Basketball at Detroit Pershing, finally became for the first time as a collegiate.
“I get on my knees every night and pray to have a big game like that one,” Nix said. “I hear it from people all the time: ‘You suck . . . You’re overrated . . . You shouldn’t be at Michigan State.’”
He leaned back in his locker room chair and smiled about the aforementioned Twitter barrage. The loud ovation he received when coming out of the game for a second-half breather verified that opinions were changing. So did the fan along the baseline who screamed, “I love you, Nix!’ ”
“They got real loud,” Nix said. “I was like the star, the star of the moment.”
But will he become the star of this season, much like forward Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors did as a senior last year at MSU?
That’s the most important question for the Spartans, who can move mountains with the Nix playing the way he did Saturday. Without Nix doubling the 7.5 scoring average he brought into the game, they will be just another team reaching in vain for the summit.
“I just need to play with that same passion and energy and everything will fall intro place,” Nix said. “That’s not to say I’ll score 25 with 11 rebounds every game.”
That lack of energy and other matters have caused Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to develop a “love-hate relationship” with Nix.
“But I like guys who eventually buy in,” Izzo said. “I saw great hands and quick feet and a big baby. I had to make him a man.”
Nix was suspended after running a red light in East Lansing on April 3 and being found in possession of and testing positive for marijuana. He pleaded guilty and received an $853 fine and 24 hours of community service — time which Izzo made sure he more than doubled under the direction of assistant coach Mike Garland.
Izzo debated whether Nix should be considered a candidate for team captain, but liked the changes he saw and allowed it. Nix was his teammates’ unanimous choice to be a captain.
“I owe it to Izzo,” Nix said. “He’s been in my corner.”
Nix’s repayment to Izzo on Saturday was shooting 7 of 10 from the field and 11 of 13 from the line — not bad for a 51-percent career free-throw shooter.
Garland, who also has been instrumental in correcting Nix’s free-throw shooting form, took pride in watching the turnaround continue with his big game.
“It was my Christmas present,” Garland said. “I’m not so much surprised as, ‘It’s about time.’ He’s capable of that.”
Everything is coming together at once for Nix. A little talk with Tuskegee University coach Leon Douglas, the former Pistons first-round pick, has gotten quick results. Izzo got Douglas and Nix together last Saturday, before Nix put together his second career double-double against Tuskegee.
“He said I was not as balanced as I should be,” Nix said. “And he said not being balanced was causing me to not be aggressive. He told me to get my feet squared up and the jump hook will go in.”
Nix hit two close-range jump hooks in the first half, including his first shot of the game.
“That was important to me,” Nix said of Douglas’ advice. “And once I made that first hook, that was beautiful. It puts you in a comfort zone.”
His own coach had more than a little something to do with the difference in Nix.
“(Izzo) had been telling me I need to bring in practice what I bring in the game,” Nix said. “He didn’t mind if I missed a shot if I was aggressive.”
Yet the day could’ve gone up in smoke had Nix been ejected with 13:52 remaining to play.
Veteran referee Tom Eades didn’t call a foul on Texas center Prince Ibeh on what went down as a blocked shot and charging call against Nix. Nix crashed to the floor and slammed his hand on the court while cursing and protesting the call.
Eades added a technical but nothing more. Spartans teammate Branden Dawson put an arm around Nix and guided him away from Eades while calming him down.
Texas guard Sheldon McClellan missed both the technical and the one-and-one shot, and MSU stayed ahead, 41-40. The Spartans outscored the Longhorns by 10 points the rest of the way.
Nix got under control and made his final statement with quite a box-score line.
“We’ve not had anyone dominate us like that,” Texas coach Rick Barnes concluded.