By Adam Biggers
Michigan State Spartans were to be a truly competitive team this season, their centers, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, had to respond to criticism and up their levels of play.
And after a 74-67 tournament-like road win Saturday at 22nd-ranked Gonaga (5-3), both showed improvement, providing confidence to Spartans followers that their team would indeed have a forceful inside game in 2011-12.
Nix and Payne each did an adequate job of containing star Bulldogs center Robert Sacre, who scored just eight points from the field, with the other eight coming from the free-throw line.
Prior to the game, Nix said Sacre would be a challenge. Matter of fact, out of all the players Nix has faced in his collegiate career, he said Sacre was the toughest to handle.
"I ain't ever played anybody stronger than he is," Nix told reporters. "I saw him in a few games this year. He looks even stronger and he has good post moves."
Nix muscled Sacre on Saturday, looking more like the mammoth force he was at Detroit Pershing just three years ago, and less like an underachieving talent struggling to survive the rigors of the Big Ten.
Payne, who scored nine points to Nix's eight, was effective in a different manner than his teammate was. A long, athletic 6-foot-10 gazelle-like center, Payne used his long arms to his advantage, blocking two of Sacre's shots. Payne forced two turnovers in the paint, and along with Nix, helped the Spartans (8-2) compete in a battle on the boards—a battle in which the Spartans lost for the first time all season (35-25).
Nix had a team-high six boards, while Payne brought in three. Nix had one of his better games of the young season, considering the fact that it was against a robust opponent on the road. He needed to show up in a meaningful road game to gain confidence.
To combat the size of Sacre, a 7-footer, both Spartans centers had to show up to play. Nix was physical, and Payne used his athleticism. The combination worked well for Tom Izzo's Spartans.
Payne has scored in double figures four times this season, nearly doing it for a fifth time Saturday with nine points. Last year, as a freshman, Payne scored in double figures just twice—10 points in a 96-66 season-opening win over Eastern Michigan, and 10 in a 71-61 loss to Ohio State.
Nix had five more rebounds four times last season. He's matched that feat this year, with a season-high nine coming in the Spartans' 67-55 season-opening loss to the then top-ranked North Carolina Tarheels.
Saturday's game was a just glimpse of what Nix and Payne, when working together as one, could do this season for the Spartans. Their statistics certainly indicate that they're on the rise, improving greatly from a year ago.
If they can establish the same type of continuity that the guard unit is developing, the Spartans will be a well-rounded team capable of playing a complete game on all fronts.
Adam Biggers can be reached by e-mail at Adam.Biggers@Yahoo.com, or, by Twitter @AdamBiggers81