SPOKANE — Earlier this week, Michigan State forward Adreian Payne sent an uncharacteristically detailed text to his coach, Tom Izzo, detailing his desire to leave a memorable legacy as he headed down the final stretch of his senior season.
“It was kind of a deep text for him, about how he’s going to just try to stay focused and do whatever I need him to do,’’ Izzo said. “When he makes that decision, I think him and I work well together.”
On Thursday, it was a match made in basketball heaven, and a major advancement for Payne in the legacy department.
As for all those who have made Michigan State the chic pick to win it all, from the president on down, well, this was Exhibit A.
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Payne’s 41-point effort in the Spartans’ 93-78 win over Delaware in the NCAA tournament broke Greg Kelser’s 35-year-old school record (as Kelser’s coach and Izzo’s mentor, Jud Heathcote, watched from the stands.
It was the first 40-point effort in the Big Dance since Stephen Curry’s memorable bombardment of Gonzaga in 2008, and the most points by anyone since Tayshaun Prince had 41 for Kentucky in 2002.
But those are cold statistics, which don’t do justice to the 6-foot-10 Payne’s dominance. He was a demon under the basket. He was velvety from outside (4 out of 5 from three-point range). He was perfection at the free-throw line (17 of 17, a tournament record). He displayed an array of moves, including a left-handed spinner, that no doubt had NBA teams drooling.
“He was probably the best big man I’ve faced in 21 years of college basketball,’’ Delaware coach Monte Ross said.
Izzo felt it was damning with faint praise to say, as is traditional, that Payne was in a zone.
“He wasn’t even in the ozone,’’ he said. “He was in Pluto and beyond. I mean, he was way out there.”
Payne and fellow senior Keith Appling have a unique pursuit this March. In 19 years as Michigan State’s head coach since succeeding Heathcote in 1995, Izzo has never had a four-year player not reach at least one Final Four. This is the final chance for those two, and despite Michigan State’s No. 4 seeding – don’t get Ross started on that – many, if not most, basketball analysts think they’ll get there.
This is, after all, the same Michigan State team that was the preseason pick of many to contend strongly for the national title, and started off 18-1 with a victory over Kentucky when the Wildcats were top-ranked.
Sparty climbed as high as No. 3 in the country before a series of injuries stalled them in their tracks. Payne missed seven games with plantar fasciitis, and at various junctures, key players such as Appling, Branden Dawson and Gary Davis were also sidelined.
Michigan State limped to a 5-6 record down the stretch, including two losses to rival Michigan, and talk of the Spartans as a national contender died down. Until they blitzed through the rugged Big Ten tournament to win the title with a 69-55 win over Michigan.
Suddenly, they were the fashionable pick, even though their seeding didn’t quite match the hype, much to the displeasure of Ross.
“The fact that Michigan State was a four seed hurt a very good 13 seed,” Ross said of his his Blue Hens. “If they were a four seed, the whole world wouldn’t be picking them to win the NCAA tournament.”
Izzo said it was Heathcote, with whom he converses frequently, who helped talk him down during his most pessimistic moments.
“Jud’s a funny guy,” he said. “There’s times I think he thinks our team is the worst team in America – until I start to think that way. Then he’s letting me now that’s it’s a lot better than I think. He gets confusing to me sometimes.”
Izzo had his glass-half-empty mindset in full display after Thursday’s game, no doubt already fretting over Saturday’s matchup with 12th-seeded Harvard. It may have looked like a walkover to everyone else, but not him.
“We took some steps backwards, too, don’t kid yourself,’’ Izzo said. “We were not very disciplined, we did not play as intelligently as I think we could with our leads. It will give us something to work on tonight.”
But Payne, who nearly declared for the NBA draft last year before deciding to come back for one last Final Four run, didn’t leave many openings for criticism.
His personal journey appears to be just as exemplary. After enduring the heartbreak of having, at age 13, his mother die in his arms after a severe asthmatic attack, and his grandmother, who became his legal guardian, die two years ago from respiratory failure, Payne has soared at Michigan State. And not just on the basketball court.
With a learning disability diagnosed in kindergarten, he earned Academic All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He also won the conference’s Sportsmanship Award that year, and earns raves for his coachability.
Payne’s decision to delay the NBA riches that will soon come his way was typical, Izzo said. Now he’s regarded as a surefire first-rounder – and may be a lottery pick by the time March Madness ends.
“He made the right decision to stay,” Izzo said. “Yes, he made the right decision for me, and everyone can write that. He made the right decision for him. He’s a much better player. He’s a much more cerebral player. He’s a much stronger player.”
And while Harvard and North Dakota State were slaying favorites here in Spokane in games that bookended this one, Payne is making sure that his legacy – and Michigan State’s advancement – keeps moving forward.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry