March 27, 2014
By Steven Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Sunshine filtering through the Breslin Center window blocks at the end of a late-afternoon practice symbolizes why this is the best time of year for Michigan State basketball - the Spartans are still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
The fact coach Tom Izzo is finally able to turn the keys of the operation over to the players makes it even better.
Such a transfer has occurred earlier some seasons and not at all in others. Whether it was going to happen with this team had been in doubt for months because too many players were so preoccupied with their getting their own games in order they couldn't focus on their teammates' issues.
It's virtually impossible for even the most dynamic player to lead, Izzo often as said, when he's struggling with his own performance.
With MSU's physical health all but restored, its mental approach may have reached a tipping point as a substantial double-digit lead faded away in the second half of the Round-of-32 game against Harvard last Saturday in Spokane, Wash.
Sophomore guard and team scoring leader Gary Harris made a steely-eyed demand, during a timeout sophomore guard Denzel Valentine calmly made the request in the huddle, and though clearly agitated by how the Spartans got themselves into such a mess, Izzo let go.
After a 16-point bulge had devolved into a 55-55 tie, Harris, who had missed his first three attempts from behind the arc, made his first 3-point field goal. The Crimson answered to take a two-point lead, but junior guard Travis Trice erased it with a 3-pointer. Harris, who would score 14 of his 18 points in the second half, then raised MSU's advantage to six points with his second three.
Michigan State successfully weathered the storm en route to the 80-73 victory that sent them into Friday night's East Regional semifinal against No. 1 seed Virginia at Madison Square Garden.
Izzo couldn't be more relieved than to see that the Spartans' genetic code, established in his second season as head coach when an underclassman emphatically, and famously, told a senior teammate, "You may not care about winning but I do; play harder," had been restored.
"I enjoy that stuff," Izzo said. "I've said it. I speak publicly about it. I speak corporately about it: When you have a player coached team over a coach coached team, that's better. I've believed it all my life, and I still believe it. I'm going to do my job, so when I see a player coach a team they're going to get their advice from me and I usually point them down a road, but when they take that over, it's just, hey...
"That is when you know your team, and I think our players, are getting better."
The Spartans are in better shape to take on the Atlantic Coast Conference champions than they may have been had they defeated Harvard handily because Valentine felt compelled to speak up after reading his teammate.
"I just saw a different kind of look in Gary's eyes," Valentine said. "He came up to me and said, `Give me the ball, Zel.' I had never seen that from him before so I went up to coach and said, Get Gary the ball, because he's going to make the right play.
"We have great pieces, so somebody else could do that at any time. You never know."
It's been eight games since Harris has led MSU in scoring, but not without good reason. He bided his time as senior big man Adreian Payne led the Spartans with a school-tournament record 41 points in the NCAA opener against Delaware and Branden "B.J." Dawson scored 20 of his career-high 26 points against Harvard before halftime.
"It just depends on the situation," Harris said. "In games where A.P. has 41 points, the key is not for me to be aggressive. The key for us is to get A.P. the ball. In games when B.J. is hot in the first half, it's all about feeding the hot hand. With the guys we have, a team can't take everybody away and somebody is liable to go off at any time. We've just got to figure out who's feeling it in that game."
"Honestly, I didn't even think of it as a confidence-boost," Harris said. "I was just out there playing. I knew it was do-or-die time. They took the lead and it could have easily gone the other way and we could be at home right now just watching. At that point, you just want to step up and make plays.
"Harvard was at the free-throw line and I just looked at Zel and said, Get me the ball. He just looked at me and he's like, `All right.' That's just how it went. They were going on a run and we needed something. I felt like I was capable enough and felt I was in the right position to make plays."
Whether that interaction goes down with Mateen Cleaves confronting Morris Peterson at halftime of the 2000 regional semifinal and Peterson calling for the tide-turning "screen and rescreen" play at the end of the subsequent regional final, is yet to be determined, but it's clear to Izzo their spirit lives on just as it did through successors such as Travis Walton and Draymond Green.
It's even manifesting itself in unlikely ways, such as with senior point guard Keith Appling, whose Spartan career is coming to an end.
"There's a comfort level because they're playing together now," Izzo said. "Those were some of the things that we really missed with having guys all over the place and nobody having confidence. Keith is struggling with that. We laughed the other day because Keith called out a guy in a practice, and we looked at him like that's not like Keith, and maybe those are little steps that we're starting to take."
Though such confrontations are often misunderstood outside of the program, Izzo treasures every one of them.
"When players are having those kind of sessions, player-to-player, to me it's good because it means that somebody is speaking up about something," He said. "They're passionate about something. They really feel about something. They are taking ownership. That's why I don't mind when it's an assistant and I don't mind when it's a player, but I really like it when a player is holding a player accountable.
I think then you've really got something special."
It couldn't come at a better time. Like Harris said, "It's the best time of the year."