By: Will Burchfield
By this point, 16 games into the season and entrenched as the No. 1 team in the country, the Spartans know they’ve got a bullseye on their back.
“We’re the team to beat,” said point guard Cassius Winston after Michigan State disposed of Maryland on Thursday night, 91-61. “We’re the team that if you beat us, it propels your season. We have to be ready for that.”
Miles Bridges, a measuring stick himself, understands the routine. With a lofty reputation comes a host of challengers.
“Every team that we play from now on is going to come after us, so we said we have to take a punch and give five punches back,” Bridges said.
The Terps dealt the initial blow on Thursday night at the Breslin Center, hitting eight of their first 10 shots. But they couldn’t stagger their opponent. Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon said his team played as well it could in the opening four minutes.
He looked up at the scoreboard and they were down by four.
Maryland stuck around for a bit, but Michigan State turned a 27-27 tie late in the first half into a 12-point lead at the intermission. They turned that into a 30-point win.
A year after stumbling through a 20-15 season despite a loaded freshman class, the Spartans are doing their talent proud. They share the ball with zeal. They get down and guard with more. And when the going gets tough, they lock arms and get tougher.
“They started off shooting the lights out of the ball. I think last year that probably would have phased and we would’ve crumbled. It didn’t phase us,” said Winston. “We’re just gonna keep punching ‘em, keep punching ‘em, keep punching ‘em, and at some point it’s going to break.”
Michigan State’s greatest strength is its depth. Along with experience, it’s what this team lacked a year ago. Amid Maryland’s opening surge, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. and backup forward Kenny Goins hit a handful of threes to keep the score even. Kenny Goins?
“It wasn’t on our scouting report that he can shoot threes, that’s for darn sure,” said Turgeon. “We were shocked.”
That was the execution. But how about the effort?
Toward the end of the first half, freshman Xavier Tillman dove for a loose ball near the Michigan State sideline and slid headfirst past the feet of Tom Izzo, who pumped his fists in furious delight. In an instant, Tillman was surrounded by his teammates who eagerly lifted him back to his feet. (Izzo did his best to help by hugging the 6’8 freshman around the neck.)
With this group, energy expelled is energy absorbed.
Midway through the second half, by which point Michigan State had stretched its lead to 20, Turgeon said his team was spent. The Spartans could sense it.
After all, this is what they do.
“I think we kind of wore them out a little bit,” Winston said. “They got a little tired, and just us having the experience, the talent and so much depth, it hurts teams.”
Every night, the Spartans are relishing the challenge. They come to the gym, be it in a sold-out Breslin Center or a hostile arena elsewhere, and prepare for the opposition’s best. Then they prove that their best is better.
“It’s definitely fun,” said Bridges, “because it tests our manhood. At Michigan State that’s the one thing we don’t want to be called, is soft. So if we can take a punch and give one back, it shows our character.”
That bullseye on their back? Center Nick Ward would just as soon make it bigger.
“That’s what we came here for,” he said.