Nov. 6, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Playing on the road has well-documented disadvantages, but some of Tom Izzo's best basketball coaching has been done on airplanes and in hotels far from Michigan State's court in the Breslin Center.
There's something about having a captive group of players locked into a regimen. They eat together, ride the team bus together, watch TV together, go to bed at the same time and have only each other with whom to share thoughts, concerns and grievances.
In that respect, traveling to Germany to open the season against Connecticut in the Armed Forces Classic on Friday is an uber-roadtrip with a major added benefit: the No. 14-ranked Spartans will be embedded with the U.S. military at the Ramstein Air Base.
Not only will MSU and the Huskies tip off in Hangar 5, a building that normally houses war aircraft, the team is staying in a hotel on the base and will be treated to a ride on a C-130 cargo plane.
Izzo would like nothing better, entering his 18th year as the Spartans head coach, than to have some more of that military discipline rub off on his troops just as it did in last year's opener against North Carolina on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson in San Diego.
That MSU team went from being unranked while playing in front of highly ranked U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, to winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Aside from the educational and cultural experiences Izzo expects his players to glean from what may be their first, and possibly only, visit to Europe, he also sees potential practical benefits to the way they approach and play the game.
"As Mike Vorkapich, our strength and conditioning (coach), was warming them up last night (before practice) he reminded them that there will be military people watching," Izzo said. "So, this attention to detail takes another turn, and I like that Mike brought that up because that's what we're always aiming for."
Izzo's appreciation for military discipline and sacrifice took on a whole dimension when he was part of a coaching contingent that traveled to Kuwait in 2005, and again in 2006, with 'Operation Hardwood - Hoops with the Troops.' Izzo would run practices with soldiers who were on patrol a few hours earlier.
Being off a fraction of an inch with a 3-point shot could mean the difference between winning and losing a game, but in the military, it can be matter of life and death.
"I'm hoping we get to see some of the military parts of it because I think it is life-changing," Izzo said. "It was for me and I think it will give (our players) a different perspective on how attention to detail is important to them but over there it's imperative.
"And, it's a way of life. They have to be that way. It's not an option. So, I think those kinds of things will help and the team-time is important, too. They will be on an airplane together for eight hours, they will be in a hotel together. It's part of team-building process and why not do it at the beginning of the year when it's the most important time."
Because MSU's chemistry and camaraderie has been so good, there isn't much fear of the players getting on each other's nerves in such close quarters. But, the Spartans couldn't be in a better place to get some pointers on the leadership qualities Izzo desperately wants to see develop in his players.
Senior co-captain Derrick Nix believes he and his teammates will learn by example.
"Seeing how they do things can definitely transfer. Being in the military they've got to stick together no matter what," he said. "It's the same way in sports, especially like basketball and football.
"They're big on team and that's what Coach Izzo preaches here. I think it will mean even more to the people who went to San Diego last year, but the freshmen probably won't have a clue to what's going on."
They will know soon enough, as did Nix after he got his first up-close look at life in the military. Many of the troops he met were about his age, if not younger.
"It was like a spiritual experience for me," he said. "I didn't know they slept in bunk beds and had to wake up so early. I knew what I knew from the 'Go Army' commercials. But when I saw it for real, it changed the way I look at things.
"It makes the demands on us as basketball players look real childish. We complain about the little stuff we've got to do and to see the stuff they've got to do makes you go, 'Whoa, could I handle that pressure? Waking up at 5, always eating at a certain time and your life being scheduled for you every day?'"
Nix has a hard time comprehending why people who put their lives on the line to protect the country would hold athletes in such high esteem and get so much pleasure out of watching a basketball game.
"It's really different and I'll probably never understand it because I'm not in their position," Nix said. "It is different that they're taking up for us and are our biggest fans. It's pretty amazing but it shows how big sports really are (to people)."
Junior point guard Keith Appling expects to get an inspirational boost from playing in front of the troops.
"I think everybody on our team is aware of what everyone in the military goes through," he said. "So I think once we get he opportunity to play in front of them, we will raise our level of play 10 notches just for the simple fact they're watching us."
Izzo has made it incumbent upon the Spartans to honor the military with the way they play the game.
"He wants them to see that that's what we do, also," Appling said. "I never would have thought I would have had the opportunity to play in front of anyone in the military, so I'm just glad to say I'll be participating in this game and hopefully we can play to the best of our ability while they're watching."
Unlike a year ago when playing the No. 1 Tar Heels on an aircraft carrier became a spectacle that was bigger than the game itself for the Spartans, they aren't losing sight of their primary mission.
Nix pointed out that MSU will benefit even more from the trip if it can come home with a victory over a team of UConn's stature - the Huskies won national championships in 2004 and 2011.
"That's one thing coach told us," he said. "We're going there to support the military, but at the same time we've got a basketball game to win."