Nix, Spartans cruise in tourney opener

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — If you played pick-up basketball as a kid, your neighborhood surely had this one big kid who nobody could stop.

On Thursday, Michigan State center Derrick Nix was that unstoppable player who had Valparaiso over-matched. The Crusaders tried double-teaming and sending fresh defenders after him, but nothing worked very well.

Nix scored 23 points, grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds, and led the Spartans to a 65-54 win over Valparaiso. Memphis is up next for the Spartans on Saturday (2:45 p.m. EDT tip-off).

Spartans coach Tom Izzo said the game plan was to get the ball inside. The Crusaders don’t list a center on their roster and couldn’t match up with Nix one-on-one. And so the main offensive objective was met as MSU had a good tune-up for Saturday’s game with Memphis, which survived St. Mary’s, 54-52, in the second game Thursday.

“It’s my last go-round and I’m not ready to be done yet,” said Nix, the Spartans’ lone senior. “The game plan was to go inside (and then) out. When they doubled, I was able to hit my shooters. But they just kept feeding, so I just kept taking it to them.”

Nix is the feel-good story of this tournament for the Spartans. He has found a home in East Lansing that he doesn’t want to leave, having overcome problems and developed from a fat freshman (306 pounds) to a 270-something bruiser and cruiser. But his chances of a career in the NBA are iffy at best.

“The end is here and he doesn’t have an answer to where he’s going next — two months from now,” said Izzo.

However, Nix, the former Mr. Basketball from Detroit Pershing, will become the first in his family to graduate from college in May. Izzo is prone to getting a little weepy talking about this kid that he has had to ride like a horse to get to the finish line of college. Funny thing is, now the horse has taken to the reins and doesn’t want to leave.

“When you’re in high school,” Izzo continued, “you’ve already signed with a college, you know where you’re going. All of a sudden, you don’t know what you’re doing. And I found a sincere — he’s almost scared sometimes like a big teddy bear — like, what am I going to do?

“Well, play well and maybe that will determine what you’re going to do.”

Izzo was holding out a carrot for his big guy.

And it turns out that Nix wasn’t even feeling well.

“Nix is actually sicker than a dog, if you can believe that,” Izzo said. “I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but he was throwing up and everything early. So, he didn’t have the energy even though he played well.” 

Nix, after a shaky first couple minutes that included a missed layup, found some patience with all the attention the Crusaders were giving him and did what he should do. He dominated.

“He showed some great patience,” Izzo said. “We talked about their double-teams. Nix needed patience because they doubled…They didn’t just, you know, dance around.”

Valpo defenders such as Kevin Van Wijk, playing on a bad ankle, and Bobby Capobianco came at him and got help. They hacked and whacked, and pushed and shoved. They also got position and moved with him well at times, while getting help more often than not.

“Sometimes coaches don’t understand being double-teamed is frustrating when you got two big guys coming at you,” Nix said. “You got to just take your time. They taught us how to crab (dribble) over here. So, now I just crabs and want to hurry up and get it out. (Izzo) just said if I get it out, it’s going to come back in. So, don’t try to force shots I don’t practice.”

He did what you would expect of a good player for whom the opponent had no answer. He was the big kid in the neighborhood once again. But from now on, the ‘hood gets harder. This was the breather before the storm.

Nix likely will settle into box scores more along the lines of the 9.5 points and 6.2 rebounds he averaged this season. He will do his part, but won’t take apart guys who can match up.

But if he really doesn’t want this to end and finds a way to be dominant in the games ahead, watch out. Michigan State could be cutting down some nets.