Dec. 16, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - No one savors memory-making moments more than Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo.
However, with the Spartans' mental hard drive being crammed to capacity by this past weekend's Game of Change festivities, Izzo looked forward to rebooting the system as he has every holiday season when the players get a hiatus from academics and NCAA restrictions on practice time.
"I'm kind of excited that now we move into the point of time in our year when there are no more games we just should win," Izzo said after Saturday night's 92-56 victory against Tuskegee in venerable Jenison Field House. "Now every game is going to be a dogfight. It gets a lot tougher."
The events of the weekend alone were enough to send MSU (9-2) into sensory overload.
Some 140 Spartan basketball alumni returned to campus Friday, and 51 of them played in a throwback all-star game to begin the 50th anniversary celebration of the NCAA Tournament game between racially integrated Loyola (Chicago) and segregated Mississippi State at Jenison. That game played a meaningful role in the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement.
Twenty-four hours later, a glitzy concert by the Commodores preceded MSU's first official game in Jenison in nearly a quarter-century.
But first, a cadre of honored guests - Tuskegee Airmen from the history-making African-American WWII fighter unit - was treated to a standing ovation by the 6,589 fans who turned Jenison into a time-machine.
Even though Izzo's primary job was making sure the Spartans avoided what would have been a monumental upset by a Division II opponent, he couldn't help but getting caught up in the spectacle.
"I was worried about how we'd perform," said Izzo, who quickly added that it was "refreshing" to see the Airmen receive the adulation they so richly deserved.
Even junior point guard Keith Appling admitted to being affected by what Izzo called "the folderol" before matching his career-high 25 points with former Spartan greats like Steve Smith watching from the stands.
"I wanted to remain focused, but I was smiling for the first three minutes of the game," Appling said. "It was great to be a part of this whole event."
But now, the preseason of distractions which: began with a trip to Germany to play Connecticut on a U.S. military airbase; was followed by a quick turnaround against Kansas in Atlanta; included disruptive injuries to guards Travis Trice and Gary Harris and freshman center Matt Costello; produced a lackluster loss at Miami (Fla.); marked the start of the Game of Change discussion with the Dec. 8 meeting with Loyola in the Breslin Center; and was redirected by the obligatory final exams ...
... Is finally over.
Izzo exhaled the sigh of relief of someone who just jumped off a treadmill set at the fastest pace.
"I'm kind of happy we're done with (the distractions)," he said. "Let's get going. If we don't play well from now on, we'll get our brains beat in."
Michigan State has two non-conference tune-ups remaining, but Tuesday's game at Bowling Green and a visit from Texas on Saturday fit perfectly into the scheme the Spartans have traditionally used to make their greatest strides of the season under Izzo.
The holidays are when he and his staff strip down the working preseason prototype to its bare essentials and rebuild into the streamlined machine they believe will be capable of competing for a fourth Big Ten title in five seasons.
Izzo promised to trim what had become an unwieldy 11-man rotation into an efficient playing group.
Meantime, senior center and co-captain Derrick Nix said the players have to take it upon themselves to eliminate flaws - such as the 12 first-half turnovers that allowed Tuskegee to stay in the game - that could lead to disastrous results in the ultra-competitive Big Ten.
"I feel like we've been playing to the level of the competition," Nix said. "If we play like we did (versus Tuskegee) against Texas, we'll lose by 20."
Nevertheless, Nix said there was much to be gained from surviving the gauntlet Izzo just ran the Spartans through, and which concluded with one of the most intensely critical peer reviews any team could endure.
Anthony "Pig" Miller, who played power forward for MSU from 1991-94 and is one of Nix's all-time favorite Spartans, was among the former players scrutinizing every move made by Izzo's latest model.
"Pig said I needed to play more aggressively in the post," Nix said. "He said I was being too soft."
If Nix and the Spartans were able to get the stars out of their eyes during an awe-inspiring preseason, they should be ready for whatever conference play has in store for them.