AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Fifteen years ago last week, Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew hit a buzzer-beating shot that has been replayed every year in March. But his first game as a coach in the NCAA tournament was much more forgettable.
Overwhelmed by Michigan State’s size and unable to hit a jump shot, the 14th-seeded Crusaders were no match for No. 3 seed Spartans, losing 65-54 in a Midwest Region round-of-64 contest at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday.
Michigan State senior center Derrick Nix led the way with 23 points and 15 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end, helping kick-start Coach Tom Izzo’s 16th straight NCAA tournament appearance. Michigan State (26-8) simply overpowered Valparaiso, outrebounding the Crusaders, 49-26, and scoring 36 points in the paint.
Senior Keith Appling added 15 points and freshman guard Gary Harris chipped in 10 points for Michigan State. The Spartans advanced to play No. 6 seed Memphis, which held on to defeat No. 11 seed Saint Mary’s, 54-52, in the game that followed.
Nix noted after the game that he’s a superstitious sort who insists on laying out his clothes the night before and believes the cleaner his hotel room is on the road, the better he plays. It’s to the point that he and roommate Matt Costello will sometimes scrub the bathroom.
“It was real spotless” on Thursday, Nix said as Izzo, seated to his right during the postgame news conference, put his hand over his face and laughed. “Tournament time, I call [housekeeping] and make sure they clean the room when we leave for our walk-through in the lobby.”
Added Valparaiso leading scorer Ryan Broekhoff, who finished with just eight points on 2-of-12 shooting: Nix is “definitely a big load down low. With his size and skill, it was almost impossible to guard him.”
Point guard Erik Buggs paced the Crusaders (26-8) with 14 points and senior Ben Boggs, a transfer from Virginia Tech, scored 15 points. But much of their damage was done late in the second half with the game well out of reach. They were the only two Valparaiso players to shoot better than 50 percent.
The Crusaders entered Thursday as the sixth-best shooting team in the country but hit just 35.2 percent of their shots, including 7 of 25 from three-point range, against Michigan State’s typically rugged defense.
Both teams started cold from the field, combining to hit just six of their first 26 shots. But to combat Nix’s size, Valparaiso went to a 2-3 zone and Michigan State promptly grabbed control when Harris hit two straight three-pointers. The Spartans never looked back despite committing 16 turnovers, and broke open a tie score with a 24-4 surge that turned the second half into an afterthought.
“What they do well, we guarded. What we do well, they struggled with” Izzo said. “They got us in one of our best games. I think we got them in one of their poor shooting games.”
In 1998, Drew hit “The Shot” on a play drawn up by his father, former Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew, to propel the 13th-seeded Crusaders over No. 4 seed Ole Miss. The school hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since, and it could have used that touch Thursday.
During Michigan State’s run, Valporaiso missed 10 straight shots and ended the first half shooting just 23.1 percent. Bryce Drew called three timeouts to try and stem the tide, but the Spartans proved too much for the Horizon League champions.
Five minutes into the second half, Michigan State’s lead had ballooned to 27 and no amount of March magic could save the Crusaders this time.
“Sometimes,” Drew said. “we can’t control the shots going in.”