No. 13 Spartans’ big men key to success

EAST LANSING, Mich.  — Michigan State will be solid in the backcourt if Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Travis Trice can stay healthy. There are no doubts there. Though, how much Denzel Valentine and Brandan Kearney contribute off the bench remains to be seen.

What will determine whether these Spartans are just good or become great will depend on “the bigs,” as State coach Tom Izzo calls them.

All was well Saturday, when State pulverized Nicholls State 84-39, and held the Colonels scoreless in the final eight minutes of the first half. But will Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson be ready to hold their own when the Big Ten season begins in four weeks? How will they perform when the Cody Zellers of the powerful conference rivals take the same court?

Payne, battling a cold, came off the bench for a double-double with 10 points and a team-high 12 rebounds with three blocks in 21 minutes against Nicholls State. He played both center and power forward, working in tandem with center Nix.

Nix scored nine and had five rebounds with three steals.

Dawson, playing both forward positions, had eight points and two rebounds. He exited after 19 minutes so reserves such as Alex Gauna could get some playing time in a blowout.

“We took a small step forward — with a lot of steps to go,” Izzo said. “I liked what I saw, but it wasn’t a fair evaluation. I’m not going to fool myself.”

Nicholls State (1-3) figured to lose to the No. 13 Spartans (6-2), but the Colonels also had to play without injured guard Fred Hunter, who averaged 21.7 points in the first three games — against No. 16 Missouri, Vanderbilt and New Orleans. So, this wasn’t much of a test for Michigan State.

Colonels coach J.P. Piper said the guard play between MSU and Missouri was “comparable,” but said he “would give Missouri the nod in the post.”

That is exactly where the Spartans must improve if they are to be more than a Sweet 16 team.

“The bigs” have had their moments against the better non-conference opponents, but not nearly enough of them. Nix placed the blame for the 67-59 loss at Miami squarely on the shoulders of himself and Payne. They combined for seven points, 10 rebounds and one assist in that disappointing loss.

Izzo said it has been “hard to get better” with the recent frantic pace. His team completed a stretch of six games in 14 days on Saturday, but will now have just two games in the next 14 games. That allows more practice time — more time to improve.

Dawson said, “Like coach said after the game, ‘Now we’re going to work on us.’ ”

Izzo knows the Spartans’ “bigs” need to improve before opening Big Ten play on Dec. 31 at Minnesota.

“Nix and Payne have to finish more on their shots, especially Nix,” Izzo said. “Both need to rebound the ball better. Nix is a great passer and Payne is an average passer. Payne is a great athlete and Nix is average there.

“I played them a little bit together and had a good rotation in there with those guys.”

Izzo said after the Miami loss that he might have had enough of his “experiment” in playing centers Nix (6-foot-9, 270 pounds) and Payne (6-10, 240) together. But the coach can’t afford to keep both on the bench with the game on the line. They are far and away MSU’s best “bigs,” and forwards Gauna and Matt Costello — the freshman Mr. Basketball from Bay City Western — simply are not ready at this point for crunch time.

Now, Izzo will play talented swingman Dawson (6-6, 230) some at power forward against smaller teams — he started there against Nicholls State. But Dawson’s better at small forward or even big guard. As the season progresses, Dawson will be the player who most enables the Spartans to match up with any team. Though, freshman guard Valentine also is key in that regard.

“He can play any position, one through four,” said Dawson, leaving out only the center position for Valentine (6-5, 220).

So, there are a few ways for the lineup to evolve here. My gut feeling is that this team will do big things or be a disappointment based on Nix and Payne.