INDIANAPOLIS — As Denzel Valentine spoke Friday night after Michigan State's latest March victory, Tom Izzo was grinning from ear to ear.
"It's March Madness time. It's time to play," Valentine said. "This is what we have all been waiting for. Postseason. This is time. This is where everybody gets to have great moments and has great memories."
That's more than just the company line coming from one of the leading candidates for national player of the year honors and a guy who just might go down as one of the more notable players in Michigan State hoops history — which is really saying something, by the way.
What Valentine was expressing was the urgency, the focus, the desire and the expectation of winning in March.
At Michigan State, winning in March is old hat. Izzo's teams have been to seven Final Fours. And they've won four of these Big Ten Tournament titles, something the Spartans will have a chance to play for should they beat Maryland on Saturday in Indy. Win or lose this weekend, this version of Michigan State's basketball team has its sights set on a national championship, and why shouldn't it? Not only does Izzo's team make its loudest noise this time of the year practically every season, but this campaign has shown the Spartans are one of the teams with the best chance to win it all. Currently, Michigan State has the No. 2 ranking in the country, and with a win in this Big Ten Tournament, it will likely lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
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Most teams talk about taking things one game at a time and looking only one day ahead. But Michigan State's goals are so big, and the Spartans have no problems openly talking about what they want to achieve.
"I think we're so hungry, and that is the thing. Our goal, when we got here, was to win a national championship. And we haven't accomplished that yet. We have the perfect team, I think, to do it this year," Valentine said. "So us, as seniors and the senior class, we are really hungry to do that and accomplish that goal. So ever since the season got over last year, going to the Final Four and being that close, it only just drove us that much more to get back. Not only that, try to win this (Big Ten Tournament) championship. And then see what happens after that. So we have been hungry, and that has been driving us."
Friday, the Spartans certainly looked every bit a team that has plans to plow through March. Michigan State walloped Ohio State, 81-54, outscoring the Buckeyes by 20 in the second half, where the Spartans shot 60.6 percent from the field. Valentine scored 19 points and came a rebound and two assists shy of another triple-double. Michigan State scored 21 points off 14 Ohio State turnovers. And all that after a first half that saw poor shooting and just a six-point halftime lead.
Ohio State, on the NCAA tournament bubble, probably needed a win over Michigan State to get into the field of 68. The Buckeyes were labeled as "desperate." Well, after the Spartans shellacked them in the second half, Valentine wanted to apply that word elsewhere.
"We're desperate, too," Valentine said. "We want to win the championship. We can't worry about their feelings and them being desperate. We have to worry about us and how we play. We didn't accomplish one of our goals, and that was to win the Big Ten (regular-season) championship outright. And we're kind of mad about it. Me and Matt (Costello) never won a Big Ten championship outright. So we are kind of mad right now, and we have something to play for: that we want to be the No. 1 seed. We have goals too. It's just not them. And that's what I think people misunderstood."
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There are plenty of good teams out there, and this season has shown that even the good teams are never safe from an upset. Add that to the typical madness of March, and there's really no way of telling which teams are going to be playing for a national title in Houston.
History, both extended and recent, tells us that Izzo's team has as good a shot as any to cut down the nets. Valentine told us Friday night that the Spartans might have the best.
"Our motto is 'be different' this year. It's been that from the start," Valentine said. "We want to be different from everybody else because we don't want to be like everybody else. We want bigger things and better things than everybody else. And how we play, we determine that. So we want to be different, like I said, and that motivated us for today."
Look out March, the Spartans are here. Again.