Before losing its final two regular season games, Michigan State was being projected as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
On Friday, in a Big Ten quarterfinal, the Spartans sent a “don’t forget about us” message to the selection committee.
Any concern over what might happen to coach Tom Izzo’s team without freshman Branden Dawson’s athleticism was put to rest, at least for a day, in a 92-75 rout of Iowa at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The Spartans (25-7) needed to prove they could handle the loss of Dawson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Ohio State.
Friday’s convincing performance should have at least wrapped up a No. 2 seed for Michigan State, which advanced to Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinals against Wisconsin, 79-71 winners over Indiana later Friday.
The Spartans knocked the Hawkeyes (17-16) out quickly, shooting a sizzling 70 percent in the first half. It was a 22-22 game before State went on a 21-4 run.
While Matt Gatens missed 3-pointers and Aaron White couldn’t make a free throw for Iowa, Adreian Payne became unstoppable for Michigan State.
Payne, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, has the athleticism to help make up for Dawson’s absence. But Payne has been inconsistent.
He plays tremendous against Ohio State, seemingly being motivated for those games because he grew up in Ohio and is a former AAU teammate of Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger.
But you never know what you’re going to get from Payne the rest of the time. If he becomes more consistently reliable, the Spartans become a different team. Payne is MSU’s X-factor and he was dominant at times in taking advantage of Iowa’s smaller front line.
During Michigan State’s 55-point outburst in the first half, Payne led the way with 12 points and 6 rebounds. It allowed the Spartans to overcome early foul trouble from leading scorer Draymond Green.
“It was the most focused I’ve seen him,” Izzo said of Payne during the postgame news conference. “He’s growing. He frustrates me sometimes because I think he has so much to give.
“He’s getting stronger. He’s able to bang more. He’s got great skills in there. He can shoot left- and right-hand jump hooks. I think Adreian’s starting to take some steps.”
Green, Michigan State’s senior captain, said of Payne during the press conference: “We know the potential that Adreian has and things that he can do. It’s just a matter of him going hard every second that he’s on the floor. Today, he did that and he came up with some huge rebounds for us, some huge buckets.
“I started off really slow. He carried the load for us, him and Keith (Appling).”
Payne finished with a career-best 16 points along with seven rebounds.
Izzo was also impressed to see Payne communicating more with his teammates on defense.
So much so that Izzo said he asked himself during the game, “Is that Adreian or is that an imposter?”
Whomever it was, the Spartans need more of it.
Michigan State’s 55 first-half points were the second-most in a half by the Spartans this season behind only the 59 scored by halftime against Nebraska-Omaha on December 4.
Two of the four times that Michigan State scored 90 points in a game have come against Iowa. MSU also pounded the Hawkeyes, 95-61, in East Lansing on Jan. 10.
While the offensive surge was impressive, there were also some defensive highlights. Brandon Wood, a fifth-year senior transfer from Valparaiso who started in Dawson’s place, provided some much-needed tenacity for the Spartans.
Dawson had developed into a key defender because of his versatility in being able to guard different types of players. Wood struggled defensively earlier in the season, but he’s bought into the system lately and was largely responsible for holding Gatens, Iowa’s leading scorer, to three points in the first half.
“He came in, everybody questioned his defense,” Izzo said of Wood. “He’s been a little up and down. I don’t think Gatens was quite as fresh as he was yesterday (in a first-round victory against Illinois). It was good to see Wood step up. He definitely defended better than he’s defended probably in his life.”
Gatens made just 1-of-6 shots from the field and finished with 10 points. He was averaging 23 points in the previous six games.
Michigan State also received an encouraging performance from Appling, who had 12 points, six assists and only two turnovers.
Appling made all three shots, including a rare 3-pointer. He had made only 14 percent of his 3-point attempts in the last 17 games and was shooting 23.8 percent from long range for the season compared to 41.1 percent a year ago.
“He played a great floor game,” Green said. “When I went out of the game, he really took the game over and got us some great things (offensively). That was really big for us.”
Green, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, pitched in with a game-high 21 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
But the Spartans know what they’re going to get from him every game. It’s those contributions from Payne, Wood and Appling that will make the difference for this team.
For that reason, the Big Ten tournament couldn’t have started any better for Michigan State.