- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- There are times Michigan State wants to slow it down, power the ball inside, take a team’s attempt at being tough, laugh and move on.
These are the hallmarks of a Tom Izzo outfit: toughness, rebounding and a team that will continually play harder than you. Every single time.
But is the Michigan State slowdown a myth? Would the Spartans actually prefer to run?
“Yeah,” freshman Gary Harris said. “I think so.”
In some cases, there is a little truth within the myth, because Michigan State hardly ever runs like Memphis, the opponent the Spartans trounced 70-48 on Saturday. But that might be the scary thing about Michigan State (27-8) now.
If they can play fast and they can play slow, can the third-seeded Spartans really play at any pace they want?
The Big Ten, known as a conference wanting to play at a glacial pace compared to most other high-level college basketball leagues, has always heard those criticisms. Other than Wisconsin, no team might hear it as much as Michigan State, which enjoys to play through its big man, Derrick Nix, and at a half-court pace where he can work inside.
The Spartans, though, proved Saturday that they are more than a bunch of guys who slog through low-scoring games by preference and design. They showed they have the capability to do much, much more.
“That’s what people assume, that the Big Ten will slow it down and grind it out,” Michigan State sophomore guard Travis Trice said. “It kind of feels good that we can show we can run if we need to, if that’s what we have to do.”
Though there are times during Michigan State practices where Izzo wants to push the pace, the Spartans are a strong grinding team. But they took perhaps the fastest squad in the country and completely outplayed it, scoring 70 points as they ran right through the sixth-seeded Tigers (31-5).
They threw alley-oops to junior forward Adreian Payne, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and pounded Memphis with both the Tigers’ own style and the traditional beat-em-up Michigan State brand of basketball.
The reason they can do this is their defense. Michigan State blocked seven shots -- five by Payne -- and had 10 steals. They grabbed 16 more rebounds than Memphis and held the Tigers to 29.7 percent shooting.
“They just killed us on the boards,” Memphis junior guard Joe Jackson said. “Every time that we had a chance to cut their lead, they got the offensive rebound and scored.
“That’s what killed us.”
Which is exactly what Michigan State wants.
Even when its starting point guard, Keith Appling, left the game with a shoulder injury, Michigan State kept going right at Memphis the same way it did when Appling was in the game.
When they do that, the Spartans become increasingly tough to beat.
From his seat in the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills, former Michigan State guard Charlie Bell wondered if this Spartans team is on the same path as in 2000, when one of Izzo’s all-time favorite units ended up winning a national championship.
The team Izzo has this season feels more and more like a vintage Michigan State team, one which could make another big run, having already reached the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
“I think they are better [than us],” Bell said of the current crop of Spartans. “They’ve got the talent. With big Nix down there and the way Payne has been shooting the ball, the way he’s playing and how long he is, they could definitely go all the way.
“They have all the talent.”
And they now have the ability to play however they want, too.