AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Here we go again for Michigan State. Make it to the NCAA tournament, prepare for any possibility in the first two games, and then focus on the next stop.
It’s a March tradition for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.
Gary Harris scored 16 of his career-high 23 points in the first half and third-seeded Michigan State pulled away for a 70-48 victory over sixth-seeded Memphis on Saturday, putting the Izzo-led program in the regional semifinals for the fifth time in six years and the 11th time in his career.
“We can enjoy it on the bus ride home,” Michigan State’s Adreian Payne said before the team’s 90-mile ride back to campus. “Once we get back to East Lansing, it’s going to be time to work.”
The Spartans (27-8) will play the winner of Sunday’s Duke-Creighton game on Friday in the Midwest Regional semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Michigan State and the winner of the Kansas-North Carolina game on Sunday are the only schools to make it to the round of 16 five times in the last six years, according to STATS LLC. Date it back a little more, and the Spartans and Blue Devils are the only teams to make it to the regional semifinals in at least 10 of the last 15 seasons.
“The way it’s changed since 2000 is, a high seed used to get you out of the first weekend,” Izzo said. “Now it barely gets you out of the first game, as we’re all seeing.”
Izzo improved to 18-3 in the second game at an NCAA tournament site, proving again he gets his players prepared to play very well with only one day to prepare.
The Spartans’ top post players — Payne and Derrick Nix — combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds. Payne had a career-high five blocks, boosting his stock if he skips his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
The Tigers (31-5) advanced in the NCAA tournament for the first time in Josh Pastner’s four seasons. Memphis’ Geron Johnson scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half, and Joe Jackson finished with 12 points.
The Conference USA champions are headed home because they struggled to stop Harris on the outside or his teammates inside all afternoon.
With only Gonzaga going into the tourney with more wins, Memphis’ D.J. Stephens insisted his team is one of the best in the country even after it was easily eliminated.
“No disrespect, but we know that we are a better team than Michigan State,” the high-flying forward said after scoring three points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking four shots. “We just gave this game away.”
Pastner said the Spartans had a lot to do with that.
“They’re good enough to win the whole national championship,” he said.
Michigan State led by as much as 13 in the first half, creating that cushion when Harris made his fifth shot — and fourth 3-pointer — with 7:59 left.
“He wants to play in the big games on the big stage,” Izzo said.
Memphis responded with a 12-2 run to pull within three, and the Spartans led 32-29 at halftime.
But the Tigers fell off the pace in the second half because they were overmatched physically by a Big Ten power after going undefeated during their regular season in Conference USA.
Keith Appling made his first and only shot to put Michigan State up by nine points with 13:17 to go, but the team’s leading scorer left for good five minutes later when his right shoulder took the brunt of Johnson’s drive into the lane.
Appling said he’ll be ready to play in the next round.
“It was very painful, but I could’ve gone back in if I had to,” he said.
Before Appling was hurt, he had a towel thrown at him by Nix, his teammate since high school, in a heated huddle during a timeout.
“It was just miscommunication with the ball screen and stuff, so we went at it,” Nix said. “That’s my best friend. I love him to death. I treat him like a little brother. We’re over it. We won the game and let it go.”
Appling said the argument helped bring the team together.
“We can fight, but at the end of the day, we all love each other,” he said.
Izzo, who has lamented the team’s lack of leadership all season, looked dumbfounded at Nix, upset that the senior center would lose his cool at a time like that.
After the game, though, the hard-driving coach said the exchange was something that happens all the time — including with 2000 national championship teammates and close friends Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson — without cameras rolling.
“Some things happen in public, some things happen in private,” Izzo said.
The Spartans forced Memphis into a half-court game, and it struggled against their in-your-face defense.
Michigan State limited the Tigers to sub-30-percent shooting and outrebounded them by 20, a part of the game Pastner was worried about for good reason. The Spartans turned 14 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.
“They just killed us on the boards,” Jackson said. “Every time that we had a chance to cut the lead, they got an offensive rebound and they scored.”
Izzo has built his program on defense and rebounding, and it has served him very well. Michigan State is two wins away from its seventh Final Four under Izzo.
The Spartans and rival Michigan, which routed VCU earlier in the day in the same sold-out arena near their campuses, are in the same round of 16 for the first time.