INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Detroit Free Press) – And now for the fun part.
Branden Dawson was at his beastly best tonight and Michigan State did what it was supposed to do – thump overmatched Northwestern, 67-51 – in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The payoff for the No. 22 Spartans (24-8) is at least one more game to keep jelling before the NCAA tournament begins.
The payoff for the basketball-watching public is what should be a juicy day of semifinals.
It'll be No. 1 seed Michigan (24-7) against No. 5 seed Ohio State (25-8), followed by No. 3 seed MSU against No. 2 seed Wisconsin (26-6). The winners will play here Sunday in the championship game, just before NCAA tournament pairings are announced.
MSU and Wisconsin will meet for the second time this season, after a 60-58 Wisconsin home win over the Spartans on Feb. 2, with Dawson and Keith Appling sidelined by injuries. This will be their seventh time meeting in the Big Ten tournament, after splitting the first six.
And if the Spartans and Wolverines can prevail, they'll play in the final – which would be their first-ever meeting in 17 years of the Big Ten tournament.
Either way, MSU needs as much work as possible this weekend, coming off a regular season that ended with seven losses in the final 12 games, and with a full roster of mostly-healthy players working to regain their on-court timing. Offensively and defensively, the Spartans need sharpening.
Their defense stifled the No. 11 seed Wildcats (14-19), who got to the quarters by upsetting No. 6 seed Iowa on Thursday. Just as in regular-season wins over Northwestern of 14 and 15 points, MSU controlled things from start to finish. And this win started with Dawson.
He had 16 points, nine rebounds and frantic defense in his best game by far since returning from a broken hand and nine-game absence.
Gary Harris (13 points, seven rebounds) and Denzel Valentine (seven points, six rebounds, four assists) also had strong all-around games, helping make up for the fact that senior forward Adreian Payne had foul trouble and just five points and six rebounds. MSU coach Tom Izzo was visibly upset with him at times for various miscues.
The main man the Spartans need to see re-emerge is senior point guard Keith Appling. He had another mostly quiet night offensively, with six points and two turnovers. But he defended with vintage ferocity and pushed the ball in transition, two of the biggest things he brings to the team.
Travis Trice scored nine points off the bench for the Spartans.
Northwestern got 21 points from Drew Crawford, but it took a late surge, after the Spartans had a 24-point lead and the outcome was long decided, to make the Wildcats' numbers look more respectable.