Sunday, March 22, 2009
Walton more than his 18 points of fame
MINNEAPOLIS -- Travis Walton enjoyed his moment as an offensive star for all of 15 minutes or so.
As he climbed the steps to the interview dais late Sunday afternoon, Walton, who seems to have a photographic memory with all things hoops, turned to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and brought up some numbers.
Not 18 or 8, his points and field goals totals from Michigan State's 74-69 win against USC. Instead, the 6-foot-2 senior guard talked about the number 3.
"He said, 'Coach, I gave up three shots. That's ridiculous,'" Izzo said.
In a festive Spartans locker room, Walton systematically went through the missed assignments. USC guards Dwight Lewis and Daniel Hackett each blew by Walton, and Hackett also posted up the senior for a bucket in the first half.
"That's the first thing [to come to mind], because that's my job," said Walton, who plans to enter coaching after his playing days. "That's my assignment, to go out there and play defense."
Walton picked a perfect time to transcend his standard role, scoring a career-high 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting. His offensive awakening helped Michigan State reach the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and the eighth time in the past 12 years, a feat only eclipsed by Duke (10 appearances).
The Spartans are two wins away from their Final Four homecoming in Detroit. Walton is two wins away from avoiding a dubious distinction as the only four-year player in Izzo's tenure not to reach the sport's signature event.
"Travis wants to keep playing more than anybody," Izzo said. "He lives, eats and sleeps that, 'I don't want to be the class that doesn't make it to the Final Four.'"
Walton's teammates want to ensure he continues the tradition.
"We rally around Travis all the time," forward Draymond Green said. "A lot of people don't know that because he doesn't do a lot of scoring. But Travis is our emotional leader. He leads us in everything."
After losing his starting job to Kalin Lucas last season, Walton rejoined forces with Lucas this year and went in with a plan: "You get the points, I get the stops," Walton recalled Saturday.
"It's fire and ice," forward Raymar Morgan said. "[Lucas] is the fire, [Walton] is the ice."
But Walton caught fire Sunday, and Lucas kept fueling him with perfect passes, even after some early struggles. Walton missed two of his first three shots, and USC sagged off its defense, which Izzo said was the correct move.
Walton, after all, entered the game as Michigan State's seventh leading scorer. He had scored in double figures only four times this season, most recently Jan. 10 against Kansas, the team the Spartans face Friday in Indianapolis.
He averaged only 4.9 shots a game but quickly became the team's top option against USC.
"Time after time, [Lucas] put the ball in my hands at the right place," Walton said. "And when I missed a couple shots early in the game, he said, 'Don't stop shooting the basketball.' I listened to him."
Michigan State planned for USC defensive stopper Marcus Simmons to guard Lucas, but in their final meetings before the game, Izzo told Walton and Lucas to prepare for a triangle-and-two or a box-and-one from the Trojans, just in case. USC coach Tim Floyd ended up starting Leonard Washington over Simmons, which freed up Walton throughout the game.
The shots were still there in the closing minutes, and Walton twice took feeds from Lucas and swished tie-breaking jumpers. His second basket gave Michigan State the lead for good at 71-69.
"He was wide open," Lucas said.
"Tim did the right thing," Izzo repeated. "We get lucky."
During Izzo's patented quick-turnaround prep -- he improved to 13-2 in second games of NCAA tournament weekends -- he showed players a video montage of past Michigan State tournament highlights. Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves were featured prominently.
Izzo's message? Memories are made right now, and all it takes is one play or one game to make a run.
"Travis took me seriously," Izzo said.