Feb 29, 2012

Spartans Baseball To Play Big Series in College Station

Photo from MSU Baseball Facebook Page
By Sean Gagnier

The 4-3 Michigan State Spartans face a weekend series this week that is as big as they come - they will be heading to College Station, Tex. March 2-4 for a three game series against the No. 5 ranked Texas A&M Aggies. The Spartans have faced two Top 25 teams this season, winning against No. 11 St. John's and losing to No. 15 Louisville in their first series of the season.

Playing southern teams has always been a struggle for Michigan State because teams like Texas A&M have the luxury of warm weather that allows them to practice outdoors year-round, but Spartans head coach Jake Boss Jr. has stated that the mild winter has been a blessing for his team because they have been able to be on Kobs Field much more than usual.

In their first series of the year the Spartans headed to Dunedin, Fla. and played some of the top teams in the Big East and despite losing to No. 15 Louisville and South Florida, Boss' team was happy with the way they played. They beat No. 11 St. John's on Opening Day and their pitchers had a solid weekend despite the win-loss numbers.

Last weekend Michigan State traveled to play in the First Pitch Invitational for the fifth consecutive year and came very close to sweeping the tournament. In the first day of the tournament the Spartans played a double-header against Miami-Ohio and the host team Furman and beat them both. The following day the Spartans came out on top of Furman once again but they couldn't keep things rolling when they played the RedHawks for the second time, losing 1-0 to close out the tournament.

Boss has said that he is happy with how his team is playing, but has stated that their record could very easily be much more impressive. With the way that his top pitchers are throwing, he is very right. Spartans ace Tony Bucciferro has won both of his starts this season while posting a 2.25 ERA while fanning nine and allowing just three earned runs. Michigan State's second pitcher, Andrew Waszak has been stellar in his two appearances earning himself a 1-0 record while recording a 1.38 ERA, seven strikeouts and allowing just two earned runs. Waszak his holding opposing batters to a .156 batting average so far this season.

Third in the Spartans rotation is David Garner, who had a less than stellar performance against No. 15 Louisville in his first start of the season, but bounced back well in his second appearance against Furman. On the season Garner has a 7.27 ERA while allowing seven earned runs but he is missing bats, as evident by his 10 strikeouts on the season. If the Spartans will defend their Big Ten championship he will need to play like he did against Furman and continue to miss bats.

The Aggies are a formidable 8-1 on the season with their most recent win coming as an 8-1 victory over Northwestern State. Texas A&M's top pitcher, Michael Wacha has posted outstanding numbers in his first two appearances this season - compiling two victories, 19 strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA. During his starts opponents are hitting .075 and have recorded just three hits. Things don't get much easier as the Aggies also have Rafael Pineda who through his two starts has given up six hits, struck out 11 and recorded a 1.29 ERA.

Michigan State will need their big bats the show up in College Station, Tex. to have a chance to pull out a series win this weekend. OF Jordan Keur leads the Spartans with a .458 batting average and a .548 OBP. C John Martinez trails Keur with a .368 BA and a .400 OBP. 2B Ryan Jones has a .323 BA and .382 OBP on the season and is closely trailed by SS Justin Scanlon who has posted a .313 BA and a .333 OBP.

While Coach Boss would surely like to see his team OBP be higher, he has to be happy with the production he has been getting so far, but his leading batters will need to stay as such in the series with the Aggies. If the bats of Keur, Martinez and Jones go silent in College Station then the Spartans may be swept out of Tex. without a win. Needless to say this is a big weekend for the green and white.

Feb 28, 2012

Video: Michigan State commit Gary Harris drains mile-long 3, advances Hamilton SE in Indiana State tourney

By Adam Biggers

Ready. Get set. Go.

Those words were probably in the mind of Michigan State commit Gary Harris, a five-star phenom whose half-court 3-pointer gave his team, Hamilton Southeastern, an 86-83 overtime win Tuesday night over North Central (both Indianapolis-area programs) in the Indiana state tournament.

The 6-foot-6 guard took the in-bounds pass, spun nearly 360 degrees and launched his shot while being draped by defenders as time expired. The top-ranked shooting guard of the 2012 class' mid-court heroics caused the fans in the stands to rush the court in a frenzy. And for Spartans fans, it probably dulled the sting of Tuesday's 70-55 loss to the Indiana Hoosiers. 

Harris' game-winner was one for the ages, so I encourage you to watch it over and over again.

Feb 26, 2012

RedHawks Prove Too Much For Spartans

Photo from MSU Baseball Facebook Page
By Sean Gagnier

The First Pitch Invitational didn't end as the Spartans had planned as they dropped the final game of the competition to the Miami-Ohio RedHawks by a final of 1-0 to finish the weekend 3-1. While in Greenville, S.C. the Spartans swept their two games against the hosting Furman Paladins and won their first matchup with the RedHawks.

RedHawks starter Shawn Marquardt was on his game on Sunday, tossing a three hit shutout against Michigan State and winning his first game of the season. The Spartans were fanned seven times, failed to draw a walk and only reached base four times on the day.

While Marquardt was shining, Spartans starter Mike Theodore, a red-shirt sophomore, toed the rubber for his first career start and dueled his RedHawks opponent most of the day. Theodore threw 7.2 innings while striking out five, walking two and allowing four hits. He was not charged with an earned run when 1B Ryan Krill made a throwing error in the third that allowed Miami-Ohio to plate their only run of the day.

Michigan State had their first ten batters retired before Justin Scanlon doubled in the fourth but remained stranded on second. The Spartans were unable to record another hit until the seventh when Jordan Keur got bat on ball for a two-out double. Marquardt's third allowed hit was again to Scanlon after 8.2 innings, but he was once again left stranded on base.

The final game may not have been what they were hoping for but the Spartans have to be happy with what they have accomplished so far this season and they need to get right back to things this upcoming weekend when they travel to College Station, Tex. to take on the No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies in a three game series.

Spartan Baseball Continues to Roll In S.C.

Photo from MSU Baseball Facebook Page
By Sean Gagnier

Following a sweep of the first day of the First Pitch Invitational in Greenville, S.C. over Miami-Ohio and Furman on Friday, the Spartans took on the Paladins of Furman once again on Saturday and once again came out on top by a score of 6-2.

Saturday's affair wasn't as easy as the Spartans had hoped, it dragged into the 11th inning when Michigan State was able to plate four runs to break the 2-2 tie and extend their record in the First Pitch Invitational to 3-0.

Jordan Keur got the Spartans started in the first with an RBI single and Ryan Krill hit his first collegiate home run in the third to get the green and white out to a 2-0 lead. The Paladins got a run back in the bottom of the third but were unable to plate another run until the eighth inning to tie the game.

David Garner got his second start of the season for the Spartans on Saturday and bounced back from his lackluster start against No. 15 Louisville last weekend. In his five innings of work against Furman Garner struck out six, giving up three hits and allowing just one run. Despite his impressive day Garner was not credited with a decision in the game.

In the 11th inning, the Spartans broke the game open and scored four runs while recording just one hit. Justin Scanlon got a single to lead off the inning then Torsten Boss drew a walk and Keur was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Andy Johnson drew a walk with the bases loaded before a Paladin error scored another Spartan run. The Spartans rally was topped off when Jimmy Pickens was hit by a pitch and Ryan Jones drew a walk with the bases loaded.

With the 6-2 lead in hand LHP Jeff Kinley tossed the final four innings of the game and earned his first career victory. During Kinley's four innings of work he fanned four and struck out three while only surrendering one run. 

The Spartans will look to finish the First Pitch Invitational perfect with their final game on Sunday when they take on Miami-Ohio for the second time. Michigan State beat the RedHawks 13-2 on Friday.

Feb 25, 2012

Spartans Sweep Day One of First Pitch Invitational

MSU Baseball Facebook Photo

By Sean Gagnier

Coming off a 1-2 weekend in the Big Ten / Big East Challenge the Spartans were looking to bounce back in their fifth trip to the First Pitch Invitational in Greenville, S.C. Day one held a double header for Michigan State against Miami-Ohio and Furman. The Spartans proved to be too much for both clubs as they locked up a 13-4 drubbing of the Red Hawks and a 4-2 victory over Furman.

Riding an 11-run third inning the Spartans cruised to a 13-4 win over Miami-Ohio in the opening game of the First Pitch Invitational on Friday. Michigan State roughed up Red Hawks pitching for 16 hits with Ryan Jones, John Martinez and Jared Hook racking up three apiece.

The Spartans ace Tony Bucciferro toed the rubber for the second time this season and earned his 22nd career victory in a solid outing. In his six innings of work, Bucciferro allowed four runs, three earned, while surrendering 10 hits and fanning two. It was Bucciferro's second straight game in which he did not walk a batter.

Jones led off the third inning with a single before stealing second and made it home off a Justin Scanlon single. Following a Torsten Boss flyout, Michigan State went on to get eight straight hits with 11 batters reaching base consecutively.

The Spartans punished RedHawks pitching and were only retired after a double play was turned with the bases loaded. Spartans batters had tallied 11 runs on 11 hits in the third, the most since a 12 run inning against Iowa in 2010.

Miami-Ohio trimmed the Spartans 12-0 lead in the fourth by scoring one run and then plating three more in the fifth inning. Coach Jake Boss Jr. said he hoped his team could have scored more and wished his pitcher could have gone longer but attributed the surrendered runs to the rain delays throughout the game.

Michigan State tacked on one more in the seventh to bring the score to 13-4 before Joe Zwierzynski tossed three scoreless innings to earn his second career save for the Spartans.

vs. Furman

The Spartans were still hot coming off their 13-4 win over Miami-Ohio when they took on Furman in the second game of the First Pitch Invitational. Michigan State jumped out to a quick lead with a three-run first and successfully defended their lead the right of the game.

Jones had another successful game, going 2-for-4 against Furman and 5-for-9 on the day. He showed why Coach Boss has him written into the lead off position with a solo home run to start the game. A Jordan Keur sac fly and a Jared Hook groundout plated Scanlon and Boss to extend the Spartans first inning lead to 3-0.

Furman answered right back with a solo home run in the bottom of the first but were then shut down by Andrew Waszak. The Paladins were unable to muster anything else against Waszak until the sixth when an RBI groundout cut the Spartans lead to 3-2.

LHP Trey Popp made his second appearance of the season in the seventh when he came in the relieve Waszak and held the Paladins to their two runs. Waszak had his second successful start of the season, but the first in which he earned a decision. Through sixth innings, Waszak struck out four while surrendering just three hits and two runs.

In the top of the ninth Jones continued his hot day and drove home Ryan Krill to extend the Spartans lead to 4-2. Tony Wieber entered the game in the eighth and ran into some trouble in the ninth. After surrendering two singles putting the tying runs on base Wieber was able to retire the Paladins and record his 11th career save.

Feb 21, 2012

Michigan State's Draymond Green claims BBWA National Player of the Week honors, should win Big Ten POTY

By Adam Biggers

The debate over which player is the Big Ten's elite should end today. It's been evident the past few weeks that Michigan State Spartans star senior Draymond Green is the cream of the crop in regards to the league's top players, and Tuesday, he was honored with yet another accolade to stamp on his already impressive resume.

Green, who is the heart and soul of the sixth-ranked and Big Ten-leading Spartans, was named the BBWA National Player of the Week after outstanding performances against Wisconsin and Purdue, posting at least 20 points and 10 boards in each victory.

Green's closest competitor in the race to be crowned the Big Ten's best is Ohio State Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger. However, not even Sullinger has been National Player of the Week, which will surely tilt the votes in Green's direction. Adding to Green's candidacy for the league's top player recognition were his 12 points and nine rebounds in a 58-48 win over Ohio State just over a week ago, a game in which Sullinger was relatively ineffective. Despite scoring 17 points and finishing with 16 rebounds, Sullinger committed a season-high 10 turnovers and essentially withdrew his name from the POTY race.

Green is the only player in the Big Ten who is among the top 10 in points (15.4), rebounds (10.5) and assists (3.7). He leads the league with 15 double-doubles, and is the first player from a major conference to average over 15-10-3 in a season since Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs' sure-Hall of Famer, did it at Wake Forest in 1997.

The importance of a senior like Green has been recognized by college basketball followers this season. However, like many true stars, his contributions to the Spartans may not be fully appreciated until he's gone, unfortunately.

Spartans coach Tom Izzo has called Green the "perfect Spartan," and one of the program's elite leaders since Flint native and Michigan State legend Mateen Cleaves, who helped lead the Spartans to the 2000 national title.

Green is more than a basketball player. I would liken his presence among the basketball team to that of what Kirk Cousins was to the football team. While Cousins could be considered more influential overall, Green has certainly earned the respect and admiration of Spartans followers from all all walks of life—not just those who are glued to Michigan State athletics.

Not the biggest, nor fastest, there is no doubt that Green is one of the smartest players to ever suit up in East Lansing. His intelligence on the floor is mind-boggling. To watch him run plays and orchestrate the offense is a thing of beauty. There aren't too many 6-foot-7, 230-pounders that move with the agility and grace that Green does.

Sure, Ohio State has the real deal in Sullinger. But Sullinger is no Green. That's not a knock on the Buckeyes star, it's what I would consider an ironclad fact. The Buckeyes rely on Sullinger just as much, if not more, than the Spartans rely on Green. However, the leadership, passion and energy exhibited by Green, who has two years experience on Sullinger, can't be matched by any player in the Big Ten.

Might as well mark it on your calendar—today is the day Green won the Big Ten's POTY honors.

Spartans Finish Big East Challenge with Loss but with Honors for Bucciferro

Photo from MSU Baseball Facebook Page

By Sean Gagnier

The Spartans dropped the final game of the Big Ten/Big East Challenge to No. 15 Louisville by a score of 7-6. The weekend wasn't a total loss for Michigan State, who took on the top three programs in the Big East and managed an 11-4 victory over No. 11 St. John's in the opening day of the tournament.

Michigan State scratched across an unearned run in the second before Louisville scored two off a home run but they quickly bounced back with a four run third to gain a 5-2 lead and chase Louisville starter Travis Tingle from the game. The Spartans had a big fourth, but it could have been much better for them as they had the bases loaded with no outs and failed to plate any more than four runners.

Louisville answered back in the bottom of the third scoring three times off starter David Garner who was replaced on the mound in the fourth by Trey Popp after the Cardinals scored again to give themselves a 6-5 advantage. Popp was unable to get a hold and the Cardinals singled home another run in the sixth to extend the lead to 7-5.

Garner's performance was vastly different than the previous two Spartan pitchers days - Garner lasted 3.2 innings, surrendering six runs on seven hits and fanning just four. Spartans starters Tony Bucciferro and Andrew Waszak posted impressive numbers in their outings going six innings with one hit and fanning six and seven innings with four hits and 3 K's respectively.

Michigan State was able to close the gap to 7-6 in the seventh after a bunt single and throwing error allowed Keur to reach second before advancing 90 feet on a flyout and scoring on a groundout to the right side of the infield. The Spartans were unable to get anything else going against the Cardinals closer, Derek Self who picked up his first save of the season.

The green and white don't have long to lick their wounds as they will be heading to Greenville, S.C. for the First Pitch Invitational from Feb. 24-26. The Spartans will face Miami-Ohio and Furman twice during the Invitational.

Bucciferro named Big Ten co-pitcher of the week

For his dominating performance in the Spartans opening game against St. John's senior Tony Bucciferro was named the Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Week. In his start on Friday Bucciferro led the Spartans to an 11-4 win by retiring the first 13 batter he faced and allowing just one hit through his six innings of work.

Bucciferro managed to fan six Red Storm players while not surrendering a base-on-balls all day for his 21st career victory in the green and white. The win vaults him to sixth place in Spartan history, tied with Ron Perranoski.

This is Bucciferro's second time receiving this award, having earned the honor last April following his third complete game shutout for the Spartans in a game against Minnesota.

Feb 20, 2012

Video: Lansing Sexton's Denzel Valentine, a Michigan State commit, throws down a monster dunk

By Adam Biggers

If you're a Michigan State Spartans basketball fan who follows the program's recruits, then the following video is right up your alley. Special thanks goes to Jay Jensen of Elite Prep Stars/Prep Hoops TV (@PrepHoopsTV) for the great footage.

Class of 2012 phenom Denzel Valentine of top-ranked Lansing Sexton (Class B) didn't need an assist for his recent display of aerial showmanship. Just inside the free-throw line, Valentine, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound shooting guard, got creative with a self-serve bounce pass against Lansing Eastern. The video is just 37 seconds long, but feel free to replay it at your leisure.

For more videos on Michigan's top high school players, including footage featuring other MSU recruits like Gary Harris and Matt Costello, be sure to check out Prep Hoops TV (@PrepHoopsTV) on Twitter and You Tube.

Again, special thanks to Jay Jensen for the entertaining video.

The Michigan State Spartans control their destiny in the Big Ten, but three other teams could challenge for conference banner

By Adam Biggers

The No. 6 Michigan State Spartans have a one-game lead over Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten standings due to their 76-62 win Sunday at Purdue.

With just four games remaining on their schedule, the Spartans (11-3, 22-5) must win-out in order to assure their third Big Ten title in the past four seasons.

Luckily for Michigan State, two of its final four contests are at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, where it's a perfect 16-0 on the year.

While Michigan State seemingly controls its own destiny, three other teams—Ohio State (10-4), Michigan (10-4) and Wisconsin (9-5)—have a shot at claiming the league's regular-season championship.

If the Spartans get past their next three opponents, and the Buckeyes do the same, the table would be set for the teams to meet and battle for a share of the title March 4 in East Lansing.

Michigan State's remaining schedule
(records and other facts/statistics were accurate as of Feb. 20)

Feb. 22 at Minnesota (5-9)

The Spartans thrashed the Gophers on Jan. 22, 68-52. Minnesota has lost three in a row, and coach Tubby Smith's program has failed to establish any type of rhythm during the Big Ten gauntlet.

Although they'll be on the road, the Spartans, who are 6-3 away from the Breslin Center, should down the Gophers with relative ease. Adding to the Gophers' struggles is a 1-4 record against AP top 25 teams.

Feb. 25 vs. Nebraska (4-10)

Michigan State racked up a 68-55 victory when it faced the Huskers on New Year's Eve. Nebraska has struggled in its first season in the Big Ten (previously playing in the Big XII), and logic would lead one to believe that things won't change much its second time around against the Spartans.

Nebraska is 1-5 against AP top 25 teams.

Feb. 28 at Indiana (8-7)

The Hoosiers are 15-1 in Bloomington this season, which could pose a threat to the Spartans. Indiana has won three of its last four, including a victory over a fully-loaded, pre-dismissal Purdue Boilermakers. If the Spartans are to slip on the road, their date with the Hoosiers could be that stumbling point.

Michigan State beat the Hoosiers, who are 3-4 against AP top 25 teams, 80-65 on Dec. 28.

March 4 vs. Ohio State (10-4)

A dangerous team, the Buckeyes feature one of the premier players in the Big Ten in Jared Sullinger, along with Aaron Craft, a great defensive guard. While there is plenty of talent on the Buckeyes' roster, they fell 58-48 in Columbus just over a week ago to Michigan State. The Spartans rendered Sullinger useless and forced Ohio State to force shots, evidenced by William Buford's 2-for-12 showing.

The Spartans will likely have their perfect home record intact when Ohio State comes to town. And while the Buckeyes, who are 6-3 against AP top 25 teams, will be in search of a Big Ten championship, the Spartans should defend their home court—and don't forget, it will be senior Draymond Green and Austin Thornton's final regular-season game at the Breslin, which should add an extra sense of urgency to Michigan State's cause.

Follow Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Former Michigan State Spartans football standout Keith Nichol is ready to show his skills in the NFL

Photo courtesy of Matt Radick of The State News via Flickr Creative Commons

By Adam Biggers

Keith Nichol's career at Michigan State could be summed up with two words: Hustle and sacrifice. Now, after a three-year career with the Spartans, Nichol is looking to continue his playing days as a pro by working out at Bommarito Performance Systems in Miami.

He plans to make any necessary adaptations in order to fit into a professional team's designs. And If all goes as envisioned, Nichol will be playing Sundays.

His physical tools, intelligent play and willingness to succeed under pressure are characteristics that will likely garner attention from NFL scouts. Nichol's next stop is Michigan State's Pro Day on March 14, when he'll join five other former Spartans who aspire to make it to the next level.

Making the switch…

Nichol, a former four-star recruit out of Lowell High, began his collegiate days with the Oklahoma Sooners. But after a year in Norman, Nichol decided to return to Michigan State, the program he initially committed to and finish his eligibility.

Nichol backed-up former Sooners star quarterback Sam Bradford, who won the 2008 Heisman Trophy as NCAA football's elite performer. Upon his arrival to East Lansing, many thought Nichol would be a shoo-in for the starting job with the Spartans, but after a "healthy competition" with Kirk Cousins, Nichol was relegated to the No. 2 role.

That move didn't stall Nichol, who was offered a position switch to wide receiver, a role he had never played in college. A competitor eager to contribute in any way possible, Nichol accepted the offer after a meeting with Spartans coach Mark Dantonio.

"There was a huge void there at wide receiver, I think, on scholarship," Nichol said. "It was Keshawn Martin and Blair White, that's it, I think. Coach Dantonio knew I was anxious to get out there and play…

"I sat in his office one time; we talked about playing wide receiver. I told him, I was just so anxious to get back out there and play on the field."

Nichol, who regained his health after suffering a dislocated elbow against Illinois in 2009, paused for a moment, laughed, and said "He (Dantonio) could have made me punter."

Players make plays…

Of course, Nichol will forever be remembered for his dramatic, last-second Hail Mary reception from Cousins on Oct. 22 in Michigan State's 37-31 win over Wisconsin. But he'll also be remembered for his athleticism. Nichol joked and said that Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi once approached him about playing safety. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Nichol could have fit in at several slots.

He thrives on accepting challenges and conquering them. Moving to a new position was just part of the process, Nichol said.

Nichol said he feels like he's been playing wide receiver for quite some time and that he's his own worst critic. He tries to focus on the details in order to perfect his craft—whether it's running crisper routes or working on agility, Nichol is always testing his limits.

"At the next level, you're going up against the best of the best," Nichol said confidently. "You can't slip up."

Adapting to new surroundings and circumstances…

Unfortunately for Nichol, he wasn't invited to the 2012 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, which begins Wednesday. But, he will participate in Michigan State's Pro Day on March 14. For Nichol, getting the chance to prove his self, yet again, is something he looks forward to. He may or may not be a wide receiver in the NFL, should he make it that far.

But he's willing to adapt.

"I think the constant theme that I keep hearing is that my versatility will be my biggest attribute, or tool—my toughness and willingness to do anything," Nichol said. "There will be a (pro) team that will fall in love with that.

"Some teams want that freak (Detroit Lions wide receiver) Calvin Johnson guy, some teams want a guy to run the systems."

Nichol showed for three years at Michigan State that he could flourish under nearly any circumstance. Now, his next step is to prove to NFL scouts that he's capable of doing the same at the highest level.

"All these scouts, GMs, they want a reason why not to draft you," Nichol said. "You can't give them a reason not to. You have to go out there and look perfect in what you do—come over-prepared. That's the mentality I've been having the whole time. It's nerve-racking, but at the same time, it's just another day at the office. You have to treat yourself like a pro.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity to perform."

Chasing a worthy cause…

Nichol was reluctant to disclose the names of teams that have shown interest. He didn't want to get ahead of himself. But if there wasn't a chance to play in the NFL, Nichol would likely be using his degree he earned from Michigan State in supply chain management.

He has more football to play, and working his in chosen field can wait, he jokingly said.

"I'm going after it," Nichol said of his NFL aspirations. "I'm not the type of guy who would string out the dream (if there was no chance to play in the NFL)."

Stay tuned for more on Nichol's journey to the NFL, as he's agreed to keep Adam Biggers informed on the most recent news during the course. 

Feb 19, 2012

Senior hustle: Austin Thornton is an unsung hero for the Michigan State Spartans

By Adam Biggers

Austin Thornton is proof positive that a player's will to compete should never be overlooked or discounted. The Michigan State Spartans' fifth-year senior has played in 121 games for coach Tom Izzo, earning just his 11th start Sunday in the Spartans' 76-62 road win over the Purdue Boilermakers.

In years past, Thornton was the butt of jokes, heavily criticized and deemed not worthy to play basketball in the Big Ten—let alone for Michigan State, one of the conference's elite teams.

For many, the criticism would have probably been enough to deflate spirit and motivation. But Thornton, who has been one of the Spartans' leaders in "hustle" this season, has risen above his naysayers' comments and proven to be a valuable asset for the Spartans (22-5, 11-3), who hold a one-game lead over Ohio State in the Big Ten standings.

Last season, Michigan State hobbled into the NCAA tournament, sorely lacking any type of gritty play from seniors and upperclassmen. Spartans followers cringed after a first-round tournament loss to UCLA, and with just two seniors returning in 2011-12, many didn't expect much from the program other than an improvement from the previous season's debacle.

But turn the page to this season, and senior Draymond Green, the leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, has captured the imagination of Spartans fans, who are eagerly waiting to see just how far this team can go. But lost in the shuffle, for the most part, has been Thornton. The casual Michigan State follower may not realize the value of the 6-foot-5 senior, who is among the Big Ten leaders in 3-point shooting (42 percent prior to Sunday, 16-for-38) and scored a career-high 17 points Sunday against Purdue.

Thornton has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game this year, nearly equivalent to his three previous seasons combined and almost eight minutes more than the 2010-11 season when he saw the floor for about 11 minutes per contest. He's been reliable when Michigan State needed a run-stopping defender, a 3-pointer or a player to commit a foul.

His numbers aren't impressive by any stretch, at least to the naked eye. Averaging 4.6 points per game is hardly anything to jump out of your seat about. But when analyzing Thornton, who has reached double-figures four times this season, the numbers tell a story of what a player is capable of doing when given the chance. One also must consider the talent that Thornton has played behind too, which has also factored into his lack of playing time over the years.

Statistics are telling, but looking at the numbers only tells part of the story. Thornton, who has shown a gritty, physical presence throughout the season, flexed his defensive muscle Sunday—and has during the Spartans' climb up the Big Ten ladder—by converting a tough basket in the paint which gave his team a 45-38 lead over Purdue. He also helped contain Robbie Hummel, who scored 18 points in the first half but was held to just six in the final 20 minutes.

Hitting the deck for loose balls, taking punishment in the paint; all likely worth the minutes. If one were to ask Thornton, who has been praised for his relentless pursuit of playing time and incredible practice habits, he'd likely say it's all been worth it.

Defense, defense, defense: Michigan State Spartans prove they're a team to fear with win at Purdue

By Adam Biggers

Sunday was a defensive performance that the Michigan State Spartans may look back on at the end of the season, one that showed the nation that they're not only one of the Big Ten's elite but, perhaps, one of college basketball's top defensive units.

Coach Tom Izzo's eighth-ranked Spartans (22-5, 11-3) held the Purdue Boilermakers (17-10, 7-7) scoreless for nearly five minutes to open the second half in West Lafayette en route to posting an impressive 76-62 victory, which gave them a one-game lead over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten standings.

The Boilermakers fashioned an 8-0 run midway through the second half—which was powered by freshman Anthony Johnson—but had trouble in the paint and from the perimeter, going on 0-for-9 and 0-for-10 streaks from the field.

As past Izzo teams have, the Spartans have absolutely buckled down defensively over the past weeks, evidenced by consecutive wins over the Buckeyes in Columbus and Wisconsin Badgers in East Lansing. Just three days ago, the Spartans held the Badgers to 34 percent from the field in a 69-55 win. Michigan State held Ohio State to just 26 percent from the field during a 58-48 win Feb. 11.

The Boilermakers shot a combined 34 percent from the field Sunday, but that statistic was heavily influenced by a somewhat decent showing in the first 20 minutes. The second half, however, was a different story for coach Matt Painter's team, which shot roughly seven percent from the field during the final 20 minutes.

Contesting shots, forcing off-balance and ill-advised attempts was the theme for the Spartans, who were led Sunday by senior Draymond Green's 20 points and 10 rebounds. Green, along with freshman Branden Dawson, junior Derrick Nix and sophomore Adreian Payne, were extremely effective protecting the paint Sunday, holding Purdue to 12 points and forcing the Boilers to attack the perimeter—and that move didn't bring the Boilers much luck, resulting in a 6-for-22 performance and 27 percent field goal conversion rate (consistent with what the Spartans have allowed from 3-point distance this season).

Purdue committed just six turnovers Sunday. However, some statistics prove to be a bit misleading, as one could consider many of the Boilermakers' missed opportunities in the second the same as a turnover.

The Spartans made the Boilermakers pay for those misses, evidenced by a Keith Appling steal/assist that resulted in a thunderous dunk by Dawson, one of the Big Ten's elite freshman.

The Spartans' dominance on the boards has been a topic of discussion among college basketball pundits everywhere. Once an Izzo-coached team establishes itself on the glass, championship-caliber seasons surely follow. Michigan State out-rebounded Purdue 38-27 Sunday, keeping in line with its +11 rebound per-game average.

Follow Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Feb 18, 2012

Spartan Baseball Opens Season in Big Ten/Big East Challenge

Photo from SpartanNation.com
By Sean Gagnier

Baseball season is already here for the Spartans who traveled down to Dunedin, Fla. to compete in the final year of the Big Ten-Big East Challenge. Michigan State drew a tough slate of opponents for the tournament facing off against No. 11 St. John's, South Florida, and No. 15 Louisville over the weekend.

RHP Tony Bucciferro becomes the Spartans ace this season and took the mound in the opener against St. John's, securing a victory on the power of his teammates bats. The team wasn't able to keep things rolling on Saturday when they fell late to South Flordia in a 2-1 loss.

Opening Day vs. No. 11 St. John's - Feb. 17

Michigan State never trailed on the day to St. John's and rode a six-run eight inning to claim an 11-4 victory. The Opening Day win is nothing new for Spartan Head Coach Jake Boss Jr. who extended his Opening Day record to 4-0 in green and white.

Bucciferro stepped up and showed why Coach Boss considers him the ace of the staff and why he was named co-captain by getting his 21st career victory and surrendering just one hit through six innings while sitting down his first 13 batters. On the day Bucciferro struck out six while walking just one.

The performance of his ace pitcher is exactly what Coach Boss wanted to see out of the gates as he is looking to fill the void left by Kurt Wunderlich. Wunderlich dominated the opposition and clearly established himself as the ace of the staff last season - something Coach Boss wanted to see from Bucciferro. If the senior can continue with the kind of stuff he displayed Friday, he will do Wunderlich justice.

Pre-season All American Torsten Boss played his first career game in center field on Friday, a move that didn't appear to phase him as he turned in a 3-for-5 performance with a home run in his first plate appearance and three RBI on the day. Boss had previously played third base the past two seasons but Coach Boss, no relation, said that he felt that Boss was too athletic for the hot corner and could do much more in center field.

The Spartans relief corps looked a bit shaky once Bucciferro left the game, allowing St. John's to creep back into the game, getting as close as 5-4 before closer Tony Wieber came in to shut down the rally. Following clutch RBI knocks in the eighth Wieber recorded his 10th career save, tied for fourth most in Michigan State history.

vs. South Florida - Feb. 18

The Spartans suffered their first loss of the season on a solo-home run by South Florida's Andrew Longely in the bottom of the ninth inning, handing MSU a 2-1 defeat. Longely's home run was just the coup-de-gras in the collapse - the Spartans led the Bulls 1-0 heading into the eighth but following an RBI double and Longely's homer the next inning green and white went home losers.

RHP Andrew Waszak dominated the Bulls through seven, holding them scoreless while surrendering just four hits, walking two and striking out three. The junior looks to solidify his spot in the rotation with a number of quality starts early in the season.

LHP Jeff Kinley relieved Waszak in the eighth and was hit around to some extent, allowing an RBI double with two outs in the eighth before surrendering the game-winning homer in the ninth. Kinley's performance wasn't all bad, the contact pitcher was able to strike out a batter and secure a ground-out before Longely's one-out walk-off homer in the ninth.

The only run the Spartans were able to plate came off the bat of junior Jordan Keur who singled in Joel Fisher in the 2nd. Keur's RBI wasn't the only scoring opportunity the Spartans had as they stranded seven runners, four of whom were in scoring position on the day.

Boss may have some competition this season as Keur is 5-for-7 over the Spartans first two games this season. The Spartans have RHP David Garner on the mound as they take on No. 15 Louisville on Feb. 19.

Feb 15, 2012

Loss to Michigan State Spartans, season-high 10 turnovers could have cost Ohio State Buckeyes' Jared Sullinger Big Ten POTY honors

 By Adam Biggers

A potential conference player of the year doesn't lay an egg during one of the biggest games of the season, right?

Someone should have told the then third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes' star phenom Jared Sullinger that Sunday during his team's 58-48 home loss to then 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans.

The loss didn't just even the Spartans with the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title race at 9-3. It didn't just snap the Buckeyes' 39-game home winning streak at Value City Arena, either. No, the loss most likely cost Sullinger, a 6-foot-9, 265-pound power forward the Big Ten Player of the Year honors and all but took him out of the chase for national honors, as well.

Sullinger was rendered virtually useless Sunday, shooting a season-worst 5-for-15 from the field while committing a season-high 10 turnovers—more cough-ups than his previous five games combined (nine). The Spartans, who were led defensively by junior Derrick Nix and sophomore Adreian Payne, figured out how to cap Sullinger. Michigan State's guards took advantage of Nix and Payne's forceful defense which pushed Sullinger low and created plenty of opportunities for them to make a clean swipe of the ball.

Entering Sunday, Sullinger had posted an impressive resume, highlighted by averages of 17 points and nine rebounds per game. Sprinkle in his 21 games this season with 20 or more points, along with 10 double-doubles, and Sullinger's bid for Big Ten Player of the Year was seemingly secure, even more so than Spartans senior Draymond Green's.

While Sullinger didn't receive much help from teammates Sunday, he managed 17 points and 16 rebounds. However, the points and rebounds were negated by poor passes and strips, which accounted for seven of his 10 turnovers.

Meanwhile, Green, Sullinger's closest competition in the conference player of the year race, had a game which likely leapfrogged him into POTY-front runner status, although his 12 points and nine rebounds were far from season-bests.

Green, who was fresh off a 23-point, 12-rebound showing in the Spartans' 77-57 victory over Penn State just days earlier, played like a hungry senior who knew what was on the line—and that was a shot at the Big Ten championship. Never mind POTY honors, Green probably wanted the win and nothing else. It was just a bonus that he offered 34 productive minutes in the process. But a win surely didn't hurt his cause, either.

As Sullinger had, Green had an impressive resume entering Sunday's clash of the Big Ten titans with 13 double-doubles, averages of 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, along with 20 games with 20 or more points. But, unlike Sullinger, Green's team emerged triumphant, which, at least for the moment, vaulted him onto the perch that Sullinger claimed prior to the Buckeyes' loss to Michigan State.

Feb 12, 2012

Spartan Hockey Split with Wolverines Makes Road Tougher

Photo from NCAA.com

By Sean Gagnier

The game at Munn Ice Arena on Friday night was ripped right out the history books of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. Momentum swung both ways and the intensity was ratcheted up. After two early goals by the Wolverines, Michigan State roared back, lead by captain Torey Krug to claim a 3-2 victory. However, the Spartans were unable to maintain that momentum and fell in overtime to Michigan on Saturday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

Things in the CCHA are tight, after beating Michigan on Friday the Spartans jumped to third place in the standings only to see themselves slide right back to a tie for fifth with the Lake Superior State Lakers. But Michigan State isn't concerned with the CCHA right now, they are looking at their chances to get in the NCAA tournament - and those chances are slim.

It would have been a tough road to begin with, but a sweep of the No. 4 ranked team would have done wonders for the No. 16 ranked Spartans chances of making the NCAA's. However, they were unable to attain that sweep and now face the prospect of having to make up ground against the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Notre Dame. Not two opponents you want to face when you need to make up ground quickly.

The Spartans play host to the Alaska Nanooks at Munn Ice Arena this weekend and appear to need a sweep to keep themselves in the hunt for the NCAA's. Michigan State shouldn't look too sadly at the road ahead of them, the Nanooks are in a down season and are perfect candidates to be swept out of Munn - but as any hockey fan knows it's very difficult to sweep any team.

Alaska is having one of the worst seasons they've had in quite some time, but they play well in East Lansing and the Spartans have struggled to beat weaker teams this season. They play to the level of their opponent instead of to their highest level - a remnant of the Comley era in East Lansing. Coach Tom Anastos should have his Spartans revved up and ready to give it their all this weekend, he knows the stakes and he has driven consistency into his players heads all season long. Michigan State has posted a 7-2-1 record against top ten opponents this season, proving that the Spartans are capable of playing with the top opponents in the country.

Michigan State players have been treated to signage along their bench with an odd logo on it. To the outside viewer it may not be discernible but the logos, two number "100"'s atop each other and sitting beside a "%" sign. But Anastos and his players understand what it means and they have begun to play like they believe it. The logo means, "100 percent, 100 percent of the time."

That's exactly what the Spartans will need when they step onto the ice in South Bend, Ind. next weekend. Notre Dame is a tough opponent for the Spartans to finish out the season with, but with the way the Spartans have been playing of late they should be able to take at least one game in the series if not at least one point. A win over the Irish late in the season would do wonders for the Spartans chances to make it into the NCAA tournament.

While the road may not be an easy one, it is one that the Spartans can navigate without too much stress. Look for the green and white in the NCAA tournament if they can manage to pull through this last stretch of the season.

Tom Izzo has vintage-like team with 2011-12 Michigan State Spartans

A photo of a younger Tom Izzo was appropriate for this piece.

By Adam Biggers

Two wins this season have convinced me that the 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans have truly returned to Tom Izzo basketball: Saturday's 58-48 win at third-ranked Ohio State and Feb. 5's 64-54 "revenge" win over Michigan, which is now ranked 22nd.

It's no secret, the 2010-11 season -- even more now, in hindsight -- was about as close to a disaster as the Spartans have had under Izzo, who is in his 17th year as Spartans head coach. Not only was the leadership absent, but the physical brand that Spartans spectators have grown accustomed to was nowhere to be found. You could dig through the stats, comparing the numbers (which I have), but a quick look at the records says it all: The Spartans went 9-9 in 2010-11, and now sit at 9-3 with six games to play.

To win in the Big Ten, a team has to be physical. Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State were tough last year, and ended the season as the league's top teams. The Spartans are playing just as, if not more, physical as any team in the Big Ten through this season's first 12 games. And they will finish the year as one of the league's best teams, barring an unforeseen meltdown.

Izzo has said that this year's team is one of the tougher teams he's had in some time. When I heard that, a couple thoughts went through my mind.

1.) Was it "coach talk?" I don't think Izzo would try to paint a pretty picture, but after the debacle from a year ago, I could see the coach being a bit more optimistic than he's been in the past. Nothing wrong with that.

2.) Maybe the Spartans, who routinely are among the nation's top rebounders, are really as tough as Izzo says. The second part of that thought was "That could be scary."

The win over the Wolverines on Feb. 5 showed that this year's team was mentally tough, especially after the Spartans dropped their three previous meetings with their in-state rival. Green out-rebounded Michigan himself, 16-15. That showed me that there was at least one senior that lived and died the rivalry, and didn't want his last game against the Wolverines to be a loss.

Senior leadership is present, even if it's just Green and Austin Thornton, who has surprised me with his play. He deserves the minutes he gets. Although he has considerably less attempts than most of the top 10, Thornton is the Big Ten's best 3-point shooter, statistically, shooting 12-for-21 (.571 percent). His energy and hustle have proven valuable, too.

The emergence of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix certainly hasn't hurt, either. Since Goran Suton, Paul Davis, Drew Naymick, Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan, I've been looking for a Spartans player with a keen sense on how to rebound and facilitate the offense -- Payne and Nix, although different from the aforementioned, have done similar jobs as those in the mentioned group. 

Sure, the Spartans are shooting from the perimeter a bit too much this year, evidenced by a 3-point rate of 29 percent. But they're making up for it by playing trademark Izzo ball, evidenced by a +11 rebound per-game margin and 3.9 blocks per game, third-best in the Big Ten.

If you have longed for the days of grind-it-out Spartans teams, and want to put last season far, far, far back in the rear-view mirror, sit back and enjoy the ride -- the 2011-12 Spartans could prove to be a vintage team under Izzo.

“I don’t feel any different than I felt a month ago, or six months ago: Ohio State’s the best team in the league,” Izzo said after Saturday's win. “But on this given day we were able to get them.”

Izzo may not feel any different. But the majority of Spartans followers would probably disagree with him: Michigan State, which is looking like an Izzo team of old, is the best in the league until proven otherwise, or a loss March 4 to the Buckeyes -- whichever comes first.

Michigan State Spartans 'Nix' Sully and the Ohio State Buckeyes

By Adam Biggers

Michigan State junior center Derrick Nix was justifiably excited Saturday night after his team's 58-48 win over the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena in Columbus.

The Spartans' much-improved big man took to Twitter after the win, most likely referencing the victory with a Tweet of "R.I.P to da competition."

With the win, the 12th-ranked Spartans not only halted Ohio State's 39-game home winning streak (lost six of last eight at home to MSU), but they also evened the Big Ten standings, with both teams gridlocked at 9-3 for first place in the conference.

It's looking all the more likely that Spartans-Buckeyes duel March 4 in East Lansing will settle the Big Ten race, which, this season, has been one of the most competitive of any in the nation.

Nix's performance, along with strong individual efforts from senior Draymond Green and sophomore Adreian Payne, showed that the Spartans are once again a gritty, physical team. And those types of teams directed by 17-year veteran coach Tom Izzo are incredibly dangerous—especially in March, which is quickly approaching.

Put the Nix on Sully

Nix finished with a bench-high six points in 19 minutes, with four of those points coming in the second half after nimble moves past Buckeyes star Jared Sullinger, who had 10 turnovers Saturday.
While Sullinger had a team-high 17 points, he shot just 5-for-15 from the field, and the majority of his opportunities in the paint were heavily contested by Nix, Payne and Green.

Double-doubles are great, but Payne stole the show

Green tallied his 14th double-double of the season, further showing that he should be considered one of the top two players—if not the top player—in the Big Ten. However, as impressive as Green was Saturday, Payne stole the show with a seemingly new-found aggressive style.

Spectators have long awaited for Payne's physical side to come out. He's shown it sporadically throughout his two years in East Lansing, but Saturday was proof positive that Payne is capable of being a fiery player.
Averaging about seven points per game this season, Payne scored 11 of his season-high 17 in the first half.

Four of Payne's six rebounds were on the offensive glass, which complemented his season-high four assists and two steals. If the sophomore continues to play like he did Saturday, the Spartans should flourish with the ability to rely on him to attack the basket.

Appling of Izzo's eye

Late in the second half, Ohio State surged with a 6-0 run, cutting Michigan State's once 10-point lead to just 44-40. The Spartans couldn't sink a bucket for close to five minutes, going 0-for-6 in that stretch and committing three turnovers.

But then Izzo called a timeout. He looked to star sophomore guard Keith Appling, who helped the Spartans rattle off an 11-3 run and eventually close the door on the Buckeyes.

Appling's speed and finesse have been key ingredients to the Spartans' success. However, his free-throw shooting has been helpful, too, evidenced by his 5-for-6 showing at the line Saturday. Four of those five makes came as the Spartans rallied, showing that Appling, who scored 14 points in the win, can get to the line—and make his shots—when Izzo needs a run stopped.

Follow Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81