- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Before he wiped the floor -- he actually grabbed the sweeper from a ball boy in the final minutes of Michigan State’s 65-61 victory over Saint Louis on Sunday at Nationwide Arena to erase a wet spot -- Draymond Green cleaned up the locker room.
Since the Spartans reached Nationwide Arena last week, they’d hinted at past distress. They were even instructed not to discuss the 2010-11 season. Senior guard Austin Thornton admitted, however, that “guys had minds elsewhere,” during one news conference.
The cause behind that fall from back-to-back Final Fours to a one-and-done program in the 2011 NCAA tournament wasn’t as simple as injuries and a bad night. The Spartans had issues.
But Green’s leadership eliminated yesteryear’s drama and fueled the team’s run to the Sweet 16.
In one crucial play against the Billikens, this squad illustrated its renewed bond and his role in it.
With three minutes to go, Tom Izzo gave Green the ball. He’d struggled to get comfortable in the paint in the second half -- proof that Rick Majerus still has it -- so Izzo told his 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward (everything?) to run point.
“I did go up to him and I said, 'Look, I’m going to put the ball in your hands the last three minutes because we can’t get it to you down low, but you’ve got to make good decisions,'" Izzo said.
Green scored 16 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and recorded 2 steals.
But his greatest moment came after Izzo turned him into a point guard. The Billikens had cut Michigan State’s 11-point lead midway through the second half to two with 3:18 to go on Kwamain Mitchell’s layup.
Green nailed a 15-footer. Then, he blocked Cory Remekun’s shot on the other end. And on his team’s next possession, he channeled Magic Johnson.
He drove toward the rim in traffic. And as a national-player-of-the-year candidate and the best player on the floor, he had every right to take that shot.
But Green is a star who doesn’t care about that status. He had a greater goal in mind.
Instead, he moved toward the bucket, drew Billikens and found Keith Appling wide open in the corner.
Appling connected on the 3-pointer and put the Spartans ahead 58-51 with 1:37 remaining on the game clock, one of his six assists on Sunday.
Prior to that play, Green had encouraged Appling to get loose.
“We got in the huddle in one of our timeouts, Draymond instilled some confidence in me, told me I was a 41 percent 3-point shooter last year, so shoot the ball,” Appling said.
Green was actually the first option on that critical sequence, but deferred to his teammate.
“All night, I was begging him to shoot, too,” he said.
Late free throws sealed Michigan State’s trip to the Sweet 16, where it will face Louisville in Phoenix. But Green’s continued emphasis on unity ensured that this program would not unravel in the clutch moments it navigated against Saint Louis.
On Twitter, some commented that Green’s decision to wipe up the floor late in the game was an example of the senior “trying too hard” to show off his leadership and selflessness.
An entire locker room of young men who call him a brother would disagree.
Travis Trice said he admires Green because he invites the team’s freshmen over to his house in East Lansing, Mich. It’s not a random occurrence but a consistent effort by Green to include everyone in the program.
One staffer said Green just “gets it.” He shows up early for meetings. He treats the trainers -- not just his teammates and coaches -- with respect.
Derrick Nix said Green's dish to Appling showcased that humility. His teammate makes those plays often, Nix said, because he’s interested in the success of the entire program, not his own numbers.
“Draymond’s one of those pass-first guys. Little do a lot of people know, he’s going to pass it before he takes a shot because he’s so unselfish when he should be selfish at times,” Nix said.
The same man who’s helped the Spartans connect on and off the floor with his personality is the same person who will jump on a player if he’s out of order.
“Barking,” players called it during the NCAA tournament.
At halftime Sunday, players argued over the effort level in the first half. Green was vocal during the exchange.
“He is our head on this team, him and Keith," Nix said. "If it’s something going on, they’re going to know about it and address it."
Players accept Green’s praise and criticism because they respect him.
It’s easy to see why.
As much as he oozes confidence, Green admitted that he’s prone to mistakes. He’s not the perfect player/kid/friend/son/teammate he appears to be.
He said the pressures of garnishing attention for earning Big Ten player-of-the-year honors and being mentioned as a candidate for national honors were tough to handle.
“I still have times where I struggle and I go in to Coach behind closed doors and talk to him," Green said. "Nobody may know about it. My teammates may not know about it."
It’s that genuine persona and vulnerability that have anchored Michigan State’s undeniable chemistry.
Yes, Green is one of the best players in America. But according to those around him, his leadership is equally significant for the program and its potential to reach New Orleans.
“If he wanted to he could go off and say, 'Screw you guys, I’m going to get my numbers. I’m going to do what I can to get my numbers,'” Thornton said. “He sacrifices to make the team better.”