INDIANAPOLIS — Yeah, winning a conference tournament championship is great and all, but forgive the Michigan State Spartans if they're not exactly overcome with uncontrollable excitement.
They have more important things on their minds.
"Right now, we’re just trying to win another championship," forward Matt Costello said. "Happy we won today, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
The Spartans haven't been at all shy about talking about their true aspiration of winning a national championship, and their singular focus on doing so made their reaction to Sunday's win over Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament title game seem like just another day at the office. It's not every day you win a championship — the trophy Michigan State got to take home to East Lansing is pretty nice — but after reaching the Final Four last season and coming up empty, the fact that this week's tournament in Indy had no bearing on whether or not the Spartans would make the field of 68 meant they haven't come close to the top of the mountain quite yet.
“We’ve got six more games. We’re trying to win a national championship," guard Denzel Valentine said. "It feels good, but we’ve got to win the national championship.”
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Of course, what the Spartans did this week was impressive. After what happened last season in Chicago, when Wisconsin outscored Michigan State, 11-0, in overtime of that Big Ten Tournament title game, this was a mission accomplished, too. The Spartans rolled over Ohio State before grinding out tough wins against Maryland and Purdue, a pair of teams that have been ranked in the top 10 at points during this season.
Valentine put on his usual show and came close to getting the Big Ten Tournament's first-ever triple-double on multiple occasions. The Big Ten Player of the Year and national player of the year candidate averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and nine assists in the three games this week, his lowest total in any of those three categories in a single game being the seven rebounds he grabbed against Maryland. Sunday, he hit the biggest shot of the game, a highlight-reel double-clutch jumper with under two minutes remaining to send a one-point lead to a three-point lead and keep Purdue just far enough off Michigan State's heels.
Michigan State won with defense against Maryland and Purdue, overcoming late dry spells by keeping its opponents even colder from the field. The Terps had just one basket in the final 10 and a half minutes Saturday. Sunday, the Boilermakers made just one shot over the final seven and a half minutes.
The Spartans won despite their best secondary scorer getting shut down most of the week. Bryn Forbes averaged 15.8 points per game during the Big Ten regular season. He hit a conference-record 11 3-pointers in Michigan State's second-to-last regular-season game against Rutgers and scored in double figures in all but five of the 18 regular-season conference contests. But he was held pretty well in check in Indy, scoring just nine points against Ohio State, four points against Maryland and nine points against Purdue. Forbes was a combined 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the wins over the Terps and Boilers. But the Spartans overcame the offensive rut of the All-Big Ten Second Team selection, getting contributions from elsewhere and still getting strong defensive play from Forbes.
So when Michigan State players talk confidently about their desire to win a national title, it's not something that induces eye rolls. Why? Because they can do it.
“When we were in Anaheim (for a preseason tournament earlier this season), playing for a preseason championship, there was just something different about playing in the final game and winning a championship. Whether it’s on a smaller level, which it was then, or a bigger level, which it is now, or on the biggest level, which is down the road, I think you have to learn how to do that and realize that it just gets tougher as you go," Tom Izzo said. "I’m really happy for Denzel and Matt. They’ve been here four years, and this meant a lot to them. Denzel, that’s all he talks about.
"He wants to win a championship.”
Valentine and his teammates didn't get the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament many believe they deserved. The Spartans will play as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, but they brushed off any "snub," more interested in playing — and winning — games than talking about perception.
Izzo said there's plenty his team needs to work on heading into the tournament, pointing mostly to the drying up of the offense at the end of the last two games. But while that probably wasn't too pleasing to watch in the moment, he believes this week was beneficial because it helped Michigan State get ready for what comes next.
"I look at this tournament, and I think what (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany had in mind when he invented this was giving you a chance to prepare yourself for the NCAA tournament," Izzo said. "We played an Ohio State team, big guards, a lot of athletes. We played a Maryland team, big guys that can step up and shoot and maybe one of the better point guards in the country. And we might have played the biggest team in captivity today. … We played three different teams in three days, and I think that will benefit us.”
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And so while winning the championship was great, that is the big takeaway from the Big Ten Tournament for Michigan State. It was a tune up, and a challenging one at that, for the NCAA tournament, where it really is all on the line, where it really is win or go home and where the final prize is college basketball's biggest.
Valentine, as it might be very evident by now, has been thinking about that prize for a long time, much longer than just last season's bitter end with a Final Four exit in Indy. He's been thinking about this moment since he was a kid doing what all of us did on the hoop in front of our house, dreaming about making shots like the one he made Sunday, shots like the ones he hopes to make during the NCAA tournament.
“When I’m dribbling the ball up the court, I’m just thinking about me in the driveway when I was little," Valentine said. "And this moment, this is what I’ve been picturing all my life. I know you might think I’m crazy, but that’s what I’m thinking about: making those big-time shots in the driveway, counting down. I live for those moments."