Nov. 12, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - During Tom Izzo's tenure as Michigan State coach, his Spartans have perennially stood shoulder-to-shoulder with America's elite programs because of what they've accomplished in March and April - the two months that have a way of rendering the non-conference schedule irrelevant as a predictor of success.
There isn't a program anywhere that wouldn't trade its high-profile early season victories for MSU's nation-leading six Final Four appearances over the last 14 seasons. Furthermore, only Duke and Texas can hold their strings of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament bids over the Spartans' 15.
So while Izzo's nine-hour plane ride from Germany would have been a little less unpleasant had the Spartans pulled out a sluggish, turnover-plagued victory against Connecticut in the Armed Forces Classic at Ramstein Air Base, the only goal the 66-62 defeat took off MSU's table is an undefeated record.
And, there's been exactly one of those in Division I men's basketball in the last 38 years.
A win wouldn't have changed the way Michigan State played, especially early against the Huskies, nor how they need to perform against No. 7 Kansas Tuesday night in Atlanta, and more importantly during Big Ten and postseason play.
"It always seems to be (this way) looking at my past, but this was a little more disappointing," Izzo said Monday. "I did say I thought (UConn was) a good team.
"The reality check is most people got to (open with) teams they were going to beat by 20 and we didn't. The other reality check is, that was a game that if we would have just taken care of the ball alone, we win."
The Huskies, who made 14 of their first 17 shots from the floor while jumping out to a 34-18 first-half lead, feasted on 15 MSU turnovers. As confounded as Izzo is by the deer-in-the-headlights look the Spartans had in the first 10 minutes, he is heartened by the way they battled back to take a 46-45 lead after halftime and won the second half by three points when they could have folded under difficult circumstances.
"You can look at it as good news or bad news, but the way we're trying to look at it is there is good news in the way we bounced back and there is good news that we had some guys who did some things we liked," Izzo said. "We watched a lot of film of us just standing around and doing nothing and that is not the way we practiced."
Some of the stage fright is explainable, if not understandable.
Adreian Payne, who shared the center position with Derrick Nix last season, played power forward for extended minutes alongside Nix for the first time. His unfamiliarity with the position under game conditions took a toll on his defense and his six points and two rebounds were below the 7.0 and 4.7 he averaged last season.
Junior point guard Keith Appling also suffered from transition-itis. Last season, MSU's offense went primarily through departed forward Draymond Green, who averaged as many assists as Appling. This season, the role of playmaker falls mainly on Appling, Izzo said, and the Spartans have to get used to not having Green distributing the ball.
Sophomore swingman Branden Dawson was MSU's lone bright spot in the first half with his energetic play and vocal leadership. However, the seven months he spent rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee caught up with him and he faded in the second half.
A mouth infection limited jack-of-all-trades Brandan Kearney to six minutes and then, backup point guard Travis Trice, who spurred MSU's comeback bid, sustained a blow to the face that kept him out for the final 10 minutes.
Consequently, Izzo had to rely more heavily than intended on true freshmen guards Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine, who marked their Michigan State debuts with 30 and 24 minutes, respectively. After a pedestrian first half, Harris came alive in the second, and Valentine got an eye-opening education on the differences between college basketball and prep hoops.
"They were snot-nosed high school kids last year," Izzo said. "(Valentine) is probably the best passer on the team, but he gets a little bit casual because he was able to do things because of his size and skill in high school and he thinks that's going to carry over.
"But he learns quickly, has a great disposition about the game and he understands the things he's got to do to break a couple of bad habits. I know this. They practice better than they played, so it's not like they can't do it. They're not wimpy guys. I love what I have in those two guys right now."
Trice likely won't face the Jayhawks because of concussion symptoms, Izzo said, which means Valentine will probably get more minutes at the point. Izzo also sees 6-foot-9, 245-pound freshman forward Matt Costello, who's been nursing a bruised tailbone, bringing an additional element of toughness if he begins his MSU career against the Jayhawks as expected.
Harris knows another slow start against Kansas, which Izzo said is better than UConn, could spell disaster.
"I think we all just need to be mentally prepared and mentally focused going into the game and coming out ready to play," Harris said. "Last game, we came out slow and sluggish. This time we have to come out with a lot of energy."
If the Spartans had built themselves up with misguided assumptions of being better than they are, Izzo might be worried. Their willingness to address problems with hard work gives him confidence that they'll become the team he believes they can be.
"I think there's enough to build on," Izzo said. "I don't think this team was cocky so unlike other teams (where a loss) knocks that out of you, we can deal with reality of turning the ball over and giving up layups up, which is one thing they learned a tough lesson on.
"I'm going to like this team if we lose 15 more games if we keep practicing like we've been practicing, because we're going to get better. If we would have won that game, we would have had some of the same problems. You either grow up quicker or you get your nose bloodied. I just think it's going to make us grow up quicker. We won't have false impressions about what we are."
Izzo has been criticized over the years, even by fellow coaches, for continuing to put his teams through a non-conference gauntlet of difficult games in disadvantageous venues. Nevertheless, he's not about to deviate from a process that's proven to produce championships and trips to the Final Four.
Losing back-to-back early games to North Carolina and Duke last season didn't prevent Michigan State from winning Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, rising from being unranked to No. 5 in the nation and earning a top seed in the NCAA tourney.
"We've got a ways to go to find ourselves yet, and it probably would be easier if we could take a couple lighter games and learn from them, and play average and still win by 15 like some people get to do," Izzo said. "We just haven't done it my whole career.
"Has it been worse the last couple years? Maybe. You hear a lot of people analyzing who we play and when we play them and how we play. You don't look as good when you play good teams, especially when you've got a lot of changes on your own team, and we have a lot of changes.
"But I still want to be better at the end of February and into March. Probably until I'm done, you're going to see some kind of schedule that's like this."