Dec. 15, 2007
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Tom Izzo tried to get Dane Fife to play for Michigan State, and later offered to help him in any way possible as a first-time head coach at IPFW.
But Izzo and Fife saw far different games when the No. 9 Spartans sputtered between surges in a 79-57 victory on Saturday, Michigan State's 32nd consecutive non-conference home win.
"Michigan State is an unbelievable basketball team," Fife said, recalling his playing days at Indiana and matchups with Izzo's 2000 national championship team.
"I don't want to disrespect their other Final Four teams, but I think this is their best team since the (Mateen) Cleaves and Mo Pete (Morris Peterson) years."
When told of Fife's gushing praise, Izzo said, "He's not as good a coach as I thought."
The Spartans (9-1) were good enough to win by 21 but not good enough to make their coach happy.
"We still don't have enough guys driven by excellence," Izzo said. "When you can't put a team away at home, you're settling for mediocrity. They deserve some credit for that, and we deserve some blame."
Drew Neitzel deserved Izzo's approval with 18 points, including three 3-pointers in the first half, and a flawless floor game. The preseason All-American improved his Big Ten-leading assist-to-turnover ratio with five assists and no turnovers.
Marquise Gray had a season-high 15 points and Raymar Morgan added 12 for Michigan State, which ended final-exam week with a tougher-than-expected tuneup for next Saturday's matchup with No. 4 Texas, after a midweek date with San Jose State.
"That killer instinct will come with maturity," Morgan said. "But with Texas on our minds, that was really tough."
Jakari Johnson had 17 points and Jaraun Burrows added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Mastodons (4-5), who were also coming off final exams in Fort Wayne, Ind. Johnson was 7-for-11 from the field and Burrows 6-for-10.
The Spartans trailed 5-2 in the opening minutes but broke open the game with a 16-0 surge. Neitzel, Gray and Drew Naymick had 16 of the Spartans' first 18 points.
"For our standards, we were still kind of flat," Gray said. "We should've been able to extend that lead. When you get a team down, you've got to knock them out. Our focus tonight was about a C-plus or B-minus. It has to be an A-plus in some games we have coming up."
IPFW was down 36-17 but hit three 3-pointers to cut the lead to single digits late in the first half. The Spartans went into the break leading 40-29.
"We were up 19 with seven minutes left in the first half and had a couple of letdowns," Neitzel said. "We let them stay in the game and gain confidence. Later on, we pulled away. But it shouldn't have been that close."
After scoring eight of the first nine points of the second half, the Mastodons were suddenly within four. But IPFW struggled the rest of the way, and Michigan State rebuilt its lead with a 16-4 run in the next seven minutes. A putback slam by Gray made it 57-41 and ended all suspense.
"Neitzel can do so many things for that team," Fife said. "Then, they have the (Ford) F-150s up front. I know Coach Izzo is pushing his guys to compete harder and harder. But I give our guys a lot of credit."
The Spartans shot 25 free throws to 11 for IPFW and had a 37-26 rebound advantage. Michigan State also had a 16-8 edge in assists, but struggled to put away the smaller Mastodons.
"We just can't seem to get everyone going at the same time," Izzo said. "We've got a long way to go."