Jan. 5, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
It's still dark and there's a long way to go, but Tom Izzo sees a pretty good team at the end of the tunnel.
The problem that's been dogging Michigan State's 18-year head coach has been that everybody sees the parts and wonders how the Spartans can lose by 13 points at Minnesota. Meanwhile, Izzo knows that a handful of key players are still under various stages of repair and don't appear as they did to him in the past, or what he anticipates they'll look like in the near future.
"That's the problem when you have injuries," Izzo said Thursday after practice. "Everybody forgets, and that's been an uncomfortable deal."
But in Saturday's 84-61 Big Ten home-opening win against Purdue, the parts meshed better than they have all season.
Freshman guard Gary Harris blocked out whatever tentativeness lingered from an early season shoulder injury to score a career-high, equally divided 22 points --11 on 3-for-4 3-point shooting (6-for-8 overall) in each half.
Branden "B.J." Dawson, the sophomore forward, whose amazing recovery from season-ending knee surgery has been inexplicably overshadowed by his perfectly explainable less-than-wonderful play, finally cut it loose and was rewarded with 10 his 14 points and eight of his 11 rebounds in the second half.
Backup point guard Travis Trice, who's still 10 pounds shy of a full load because of an off-season infection that kept him in bed most of the summer, came off the bench to keep MSU (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) on the rails. His scrappy play and eight points helped the No. 18 Spartans get out of a lackluster first half with a 36-30 lead, and he finished with 12 and Michigan State's only other two 3-pointers.
"Even though I'm excited about the win, and I think we beat a good team, we're still not playing like we need to play if we're going to make any kind of noise in this conference," Izzo said.
The comfort comes in knowing that "we've got some things to feel good about (and) that you can see if we put it together," Izzo added.
Once MSU got on a roll in the second half, it pulled away rather easily from the Boilermakers (7-7, 1-1), who handled No. 11 Illinois on Thursday. It should be pointed out for the sake of Big Ten perspective that the Illini came back Saturday to trounce No. 8 Ohio State, 74-55.
"It's funny," Izzo said. "Gary's ... very aggressive defensively, but I think since the injury he hasn't been as aggressive offensively, and I don't know why. But we did talk about it."
Izzo relieved some of the pressure a shooter like Harris feels when the ball isn't falling through the hoop - he made just 3 of 16 3-point attempts in the previous five games - by giving him the green light to be aggressive.
"Yeah, I guess (it helped) because I knew Coach had my back," Harris said. "He knew I was in a slump but he just said keep shooting because I had to shoot my way out of it, and I was able to do that."
Harris' mother Joy (Holmes) Harris, ironically a former Purdue All-American who set the then-school scoring record with 1,747 points from 1988-91, also chimed in.
"She just said look for my shot more," Harris said. "She said sometimes I get the ball and don't look at the basket and that I have to be more of a threat every time I touch the ball."
So, did Mrs. Harris play an even bigger role in her son's turnaround that Izzo?
"Yeah, I guess you could say that," Harris said. "She's been through it. She's my mom."
That Dawson could run normally, let alone show flashes of his above-the-rim self, in the previous 14 games helped ease Izzo's frustration over Dawson's inconsistency.
"I think he just decided to let it go," Izzo said. "I don't think it physically hindered him, but like a lot of people tell me, there's a mental hindrance to serious injuries like that and I think B.J. played at a different energy level in the second half.
"It's hard to push a guy when you don't know how much is injury and how much is, for a better choice of words, laziness or (being) inept, and that's a very delicate area right now for me. He needed to have a good game. Now we'll see if he can maintain that kind of energy because it was a big difference in the game."
Although Dawson said his knee feels completely healthy, the long recovery period took a toll on his fitness level. Regardless of how hard he reefed on the throttle, his body responded only in fits and spurts.
Dawson told Izzo, "Don't take it easy on me. I want him yelling at me and pushing me. I've always been about tough love, so keep getting on me when I'm not playing hard or running hard. At halftime he told me he's not going to baby me anymore."
Dawson scored eight points, including a tough floater in traffic, points during MSU's tide-turning 25-5 run.
"Yes, it was as close to normal as I've felt," he said. "I was finally smiling again, I was having fun. It's hard being out for seven months. Travis Trice's dad (also Travis), who's a coach we played AAU ball with, called me and told me to stop getting frustrated all the time and just go out there an have fun.
"He said I have a nice smile and he just wants to see me smiling again."
If Izzo had only known about these parental powers of suggestion sooner.
In addition to coming back from a mysterious illness, Trice is still wearing a clear mask to protect the broken nose, which was accompanied by a concussion, in the opener against Connecticut.
He darted around fearlessly against the Boilermakers and is looking forward to playing without the mask in a couple of weeks or so. Trice said the Spartans will continue to get up to full speed as the players' health returns to 100 percent.
"I'm getting to play for longer stretches because I'm finally getting my wind back," Trice said. "B.J. isn't as athletic as he was before, so now he has to really depend on skill and being in the place at the right time and thinking more.
"With Gary, it's kind of scary when you're dealing with your shoulder because it affects your shot altogether. And I'm just getting back in shape and trying to act like the mask isn't there."
As the Spartans continue to adjust to the sudden departure of Brandan Kearney, a hale and healthy part who decided he'd rather play somewhere else, and if redshirt sophomore Russell Byrd can get his shooting back to where it was before foot injuries plagued the first three seasons, and if Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne continue to develop synergy in the low post, the light should keep getting brighter and brighter for MSU.
"It kind of threw us out of rhythm," Trice said of the underlying adversity. "But we should be better because of it. I think it's also made the three of us, and the whole team, realize we have to focus in. You always hear that during the (NCAA) tournament, you've got to get lucky and you have to play well even if you have a freak accident or somebody gets hurt.
"Well, we've already been through all that. I think it's a blessing.