INDIANAPOLIS -- At the start of the first half, Draymond Green didn’t play like the Big Ten Player of the Year. He didn’t even look like the best player on his team in stretches of Michigan State’s 65-52 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament semifinals Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Austin Thornton, a fifth-year senior, noticed Green’s demeanor switch from confident to concerned.
So when Green, who scored just two points before halftime, couldn’t overcome those early struggles, Thornton told him to keep his head up and focus on rebounding. And then Thornton did something about the Spartans’ early 20-9 deficit.
It was Thornton (5.0 ppg) who connected on three consecutive 3s and jolted the Spartans toward their first Big Ten tournament title game since 2000. Michigan State closed out the first half with a 26-5 run that was sparked by Thornton’s 3s. Wisconsin rallied in the second half to cut Michigan State’s lead to six, but the Spartans responded with an 11-0 run to stay safe and comfortable.
It all started with Thornton.
“We were pretty lethargic there at the beginning and so we needed a spark,” Thornton said after the game. “And I was able to do it and was glad the guys got me the ball where it needed to go and I’m just glad the shots went in. … The rim was getting bigger.”
On Sunday, Michigan State will fight for the conference tournament championship and possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. With durability and relentlessness, the Spartans were unstoppable for the second time this weekend.
But they had to do it without Green early. They seemed lost. They blew defensive assignments. They missed layups. They threw passes toward cheerleaders.
It was a foreign experience for a team that’s enjoyed the fruits from a player who averages 16.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg.
Most teams encounter trouble when their most important player is off. But the Spartans proved that they possess the depth to rebound in those situations, especially with a leader such as Thornton. That helped the Spartans move to Plan B.
“I’m happy somebody’s finally noticing what Austin does,” Green said. “He's so underrated, it’s pathetic.”
As he watched Green’s body language change, Thornton reminded the conference player of the year that his scoring woes didn’t mean that he couldn’t have an impact on the game.
“There have been times that he’s struggling -- he’s human like we all are -- he needs someone to step up and really tell him, ‘You’re OK. Don’t forget who you are. You’re the MVP of this league. You’ve done some great things. Don’t worry about the shots not going in and just know that you can pick it up.’ And he was able to do that.”
Added Green: “He keeps me positive.”
Green crashed the boards and finished the night with 16 rebounds to go along with 14 points.
Green may or may not encounter a similar hurdle during the NCAA tournament or in the title game Sunday. And the Spartans will have to regroup again. Though Green has been the focus this season, he’s definitely not the only talent on the roster.
When he couldn’t find the basket, Brandon Wood (nine points, 4-for-8) hit shots. Keith Appling (five assists) worked the offense. And Thornton sank 3s (4-for-4 from beyond the arc), buying Green enough time to shake a rare, futile first half.
The Spartans shot 21-for-42 from the field. They outscored the Badgers 22-6 in the paint. Beginning near the 10-minute mark of the first half, the Badgers failed to record a field goal for 12 minutes.
Rob Wilson, who scored a career-high 30 points in a Friday win over Indiana, finished with six against the Spartans Saturday. They led by 10 at halftime even though Green hit just one of five shots.
“We just have a deep team. We have people who can step up and hit shots when somebody like Draymond is struggling,” Wood said. “We don’t get rattled because we know other people can step up and play just as well.”
After Saturday’s win, the Spartans said they wanted to take some of the pressure off the veteran. They recognized that Saturday’s first-half featured a problem that Green, for once, couldn’t solve.
And in that moment, they showcased their versatility.
The Spartans depend on Green. But Saturday’s performance suggested that they’re bigger than the All-America candidate.
“We all can tell when Draymond is struggling. We just try to come together as a team and help him out because he probably feels like he’s got to carry us,” said Adreian Payne. “And when your leader feels like that, down in the dumps, other players, we've got to come together as a team to help him through it. Sooner or later, he’ll get himself going and he can feed off our energy.”