Rebuilding at Michigan State? Don’t tell Tom Izzo

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It’s easy to call this a rebuilding season for Michigan State.

After all, the program graduated two high-profile players after last season: Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers played prominent roles for four seasons in East Lansing and led the Spartans to two Final Fours. Not only are they gone this season, but MSU fell far short of expectations last year—the team was favored to contend for a national championship and instead barely qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Considering that the 2011-12 Spartans still carry the weight of last season’s disappointment, and that they don’t have Lucas and Summers to lead them, Michigan State is likely to take a step back, right?

Tom Izzo doesn’t agree. He knows this season’s rotation isn’t yet proven, but he likes the amount of talent and depth on hand. He also thinks that this team will benefit from strong chemistry and leadership—Mateen Cleaves-like leadership, in fact, and while that comparison puts plenty of pressure on senior forward Draymond Green, it also speaks to how highly Izzo thinks of Green.

You get the sense that Izzo likes this team, and that he thinks if some things break his way this season might not just exceed fans’ tempered expectations—it could shatter them. Below, Izzo explains why this could be a special and surprising season in East Lansing.

Q: What’s your sense of your team heading into this season? What’s possible for this group?

Tom Izzo: We’ve got a lot of unknowns. I like the unknowns. Is [Derrick] Nix going to keep the weight off? He looks great right now. Adreian Payne is someone we think is going to have a chance to be one of the better big men we’ve had. He had shoulder surgery at the end of high school and missed six or seven months [before his freshman season], and so this will really be like his first year. Russell Byrd, a guy who would be one of our best shooters, he had a stress fracture [before his freshman season in 2010-11] that just never healed in 14 months, but now it looks like it’s healed. So I’m excited, but all those things are question marks.

I think we’ve got a lot of positives. We’ve got [freshman] Branden Dawson, who I think has got a chance to be a star. I think we’ve got a couple of great players in [Keith] Appling and Dawson and Payne, and Draymond Green, Up front we also have and Nix and Alex Gauna.

[In the backcourt], we brought a transfer in, Brandon Wood [from Valparaiso], who I think is going to help us. And I think [freshman point guard] Travis Trice will help us immediately.

So I think we’ve got depth. It’s just not depth that I’m [confident] of, because so many of those guys are coming off of either injures or a redshirt, or the one transfer. So you don’t quite sleep as good, especially with the schedule we’ve got.

But it’s exciting because I think our team chemistry is even better [than in 2010-11], and I think we’ve worked awfully hard in the off-season. I’m really excited for all the chances and opportunities we’ve got. We’ve had teams like this in the past that people would write off, and then later we’re right in there as contenders, and we’ve done very well in those years. I’m hoping this will be one of those teams.

Q: Is Draymond Green the kind of leader who can help propel this team to have one of those special seasons?

Tom Izzo: Yeah, I think he’s going to be that leader—the kind of leader that Travis Walton was in 2009 when we went to the Final Four with a team that nobody thought could do it. And even though it’s hard to match what Cleaves did back in 2000, I think Green has a chance to be that kind of leader.

Last year, we had some good players, but we just didn’t have the right chemistry, I didn’t feel, and we didn’t have the leadership that I think you need. When you win 19 or 20 games, you make the NCAA Tournament. But what I’m talking about is when you make deep runs in the Tournament—you need big-time leadership for that. And I think with Green we’ve got a big-time leader.

Q: Mateen Cleaves was a transcendent leader for a couple of seasons; it’s a little surprising to hear you say you had a leadership void last season, considering you think so highly of Green’s leadership—and he was a junior on that team. Do you think Green didn’t assert himself out of deference to last season’s seniors? 

Tom Izzo: I think so. We had a weird deal with [Kalin] Lucas and [Durrell] Summers. Lucas had an Achilles’ injury, and he really missed six months. It took up until January for him to really get back on track with that Achilles. So for a lot of last season—and this is not to make excuses—but I think there were legitimate reasons why we never seemed in sync. Some of it was our fault—some of it was chemistry and some of it was performance—but some of it was also due to injuries and situations that we had no control over.

Put that together and you have a season that none of us feel good about. But when you have a bad season and you still win almost 20 games and you go the NCAA Tournament, that’s not all bad, either.

Q: One last question about the Big Ten newbie. What do you expect from Nebraska this season? How difficult will it be for Nebraska to adjust to the Big Ten? 

Tom Izzo: I think it’s going to be hard on them and hard on us. [Doc Sadler] is a very, very good coach, and nobody in our league has been [to Lincoln recently]. I was there a lot of years ago, but it’s never easy to do that—to go into a new environment, a new situation.

I think [Sadler] is a very good coach, and he thinks he’s going to have a decent team. Everybody looks at Nebraska and just thinks about football, but Doc has done a great job for them down there, and he’s tough to play against.

He’s a very defensive-minded coach. [Because of Nebraska’s defense], you can play good and win by five, play great and win by six, or play average and lose. And that’s a problem.

So yeah, they’re going to have an adjustment—but so are we.

Steve Hendershot is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @stevehendershot

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LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Five ranked teams fall, No. 12 Arizona survives

Brad Horrigan/The Courant via AP
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GAME OF THE DAY: Syracuse 79, No. 18 UConn 76

The former Big East rivals met in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the game did not disappoint, with Jim Boeheim’s Orange pulling out a three-point victory. Michael Gbinije (17 points, seven assists) and Trevor Cooney played well on the perimeter, but junior Tyler Roberson and freshmen Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon made some big plays as well.

UConn couldn’t get the rebound of a Cooney missed shot in the final seconds, not getting a chance at a game-tying shot as a result. Daniel Hamilton led the Huskies with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

Rob Dauster wrote more about this game here.


Monmouth 70, No. 17 Notre Dame 68: Justin Robinson made two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to give the Hawks a two-point win over the Fighting Irish at the Advocare Invitational in Orlando. Robinson scored a game-high 22 points, with Demetrius Jackson leading Notre Dame with 20.

No. 25 Texas A&M 62, No. 10 Gonzaga 61: Billy Kennedy’s team played outstanding defense on the Bulldogs’ final possession of the game, switching all screens and hanging on as Silas Melson’s shot missed the mark. Danuel House scored 19 points and Tonny Trocha-Morelos added 14 for the Aggies, who will play Syracuse in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game. Kyle Wiltjer scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Gonzaga.

San Diego State 72, No. 14 California 58: With 17:24 remaining the Golden Bears led 45-30 and looked well-positioned to advance to Friday’s Continental Las Vegas Classic title game. From that point on they were outscored 42-13, with SDSU combining improved offense with stifling defense. Winston Shepard scored all 15 of his points in the second half and Skylar Spencer added ten second-half points to lead the way for the Aztecs, who will play West Virginia Friday. Ivan Rabb scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Golden Bears.


Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine posted his second triple-double of the season in the Spartans’ 99-68 win over Boston College, finishing with 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.

Devin Williams, West Virginia: The junior forward scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers to a 67-59 win over Richmond in Las Vegas.

Charles Mitchell, Georgia Tech: Mitchell scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a win over Arkansas.

Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: Sure he shot 11-for-29 from the field in scoring his 44 points, but given Santa Clara’s youth and lack of a consistent supplementary scorer Brownridge has to take those shots. The Broncos took No. 12 Arizona to overtime before falling by two points.


Stanford: Not only did the Cardinal shoot 26 percent in their loss to No. 8 Villanova, but they also committed 23 turnovers on the day.

Ryan Kemrite, Liberty: Kemrite shot 1-for-10 from the field, scoring two points in the Flames’ 73-62 loss to Appalachian State.

Arizona’s perimeter shooting: The Wildcats shot 3-for-22 from three in a two-point win over Santa Clara. Over the last two games Sean Miller’s team has shot 8-for-44 from beyond the arc.


  • No. 3 Michigan State rolled to a 99-68 win over Boston College, with the result being Tom Izzo’s 500th win as a head coach. Denzel Valentine went for 29 points, 11 rebounds and ten assists.
  • No. 8 Villanova shot just 30.6 percent from the field, but their opponents shot even worse in the 59-46 Wildcat win over Stanford. The Cardinal shot 26 percent from the field and committed 23 turnovers.
  • No. 12 Arizona survived questionable shot selection and a 44-point night from Jared Brownridge to beat winless Santa Clara 75-73 in overtime. Ryan Anderson scored 17 to lead the way for Arizona, which lost Kaleb Tarczewski in the second half to a left ankle injury.
  • Bennie Boatwright scored 22 points to lead USC to a 72-69 win over No. 20 Wichita State. Ron Baker led all scorers with 25 points, but he and Markis McDuffie (14 points) were the only Shockers to reach double figures.
  • No. 23 Xavier took over in the second half of its game against Alabama, outscoring the Crimson Tide by 16 points to win by the final score of 64-45.


  • Texas exacted a measure of revenge on Washington, beating the Huskies 82-70 at the Battle 4 Atlantis. The Huskies won the first meeting between the two teams this season in Shanghai in the season opener for both.
  • Georgia Tech advanced to the title game of the Preseason NIT with a ten-point win over Arkansas in Brooklyn. Charles Mitchell went for 18 points and 18 rebounds for the Yellow Jackets, who play No. 8 Villanova Friday.
  • Anthony Drmic scored 21 points and Chandler Hutchison added 13 points and ten rebounds as Boise State beat UC Irvine 71-64 at the DirecTV Wooden Legacy in Fullerton, California.
  • Devin Williams scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards in West Virginia’s 67-59 win over Richmond at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational. The Mountaineers only forced 14 turnovers, but they made up for it by limiting Richmond to 39.1 percent shooting.
  • Ben Bentil scored 24 points and Kris Dunn added 18 as Providence beat Evansville 74-64. The 24 points represents a career high for Bentil.
  • Scoochie Smith made two huge baskets and Charles Cooke scored 22 points as Dayton went on a game-ending 11-2 run to beat Iowa 82-77. Jarrod Uthoff led the Hawkeyes with 18 points.
  • Moritz Wagner scored 19 points to lead four players in double figures as Michigan rolled to a 102-47 win over Charlotte. After struggling offensively against UConn on Wednesday, the Wolverines shot 61.9 percent from the field against the 49ers.

No. 3 Michigan State routs Boston College 99-68

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) Denzel Valentine had a triple-double of 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and No. 3 Michigan State beat Boston College 99-68 Thursday in an opening-round game at the DirectTV Wooden Legacy, giving coach Tom Izzo his 500th career victory.

Valentine helped the Spartans expand their 13-point halftime lead to 27 midway through the second half. His second triple-double of the season was the first in the event’s nine-year history.

Valentine’s six 3-pointers were one off his career high, and his points total was a career best.

Tum Tum Nairn added 13 points and eight assists for the Spartans, who shot 63 percent and dominated the boards 38-20.

After the final buzzer, Izzo’s players gathered around him at midcourt, holding up “Izzo 500” signs and posing for photos.

Eli Carter, a graduate transfer from Florida, led the Eagles with 22 points – one off his career high at BC.

The Spartans (5-0) next play Boise State (3-2) on Friday. The Broncos beat UC Irvine 71-64 in the day’s first game at cozy Titan Gym on the campus of Cal State Fullerton.

Boston College (3-1) will play Irvine (4-1) on Friday.

After hitting consecutive 3-pointers, Valentine backpedaled up the court smiling at Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green sitting courtside. Valentine converted a one-handed jam off a turnover and dashed over to high-five Green, clearly delighted by his alma mater’s theatrics.

Valentine scored 14 points in Michigan State’s 25-11 run to open the second half. The Spartans made four straight 3-pointers in the spurt, with Valentine hitting three in a row and passing to Bryn Forbes for the other.

The Eagles tried rallying from the perimeter, getting three straight 3s while closing to 80-59. It didn’t help. Valentine sparked a 10-0 burst with a basket and an assist that pushed Michigan State’s lead to 88-59.

The Spartans led 46-33 at halftime, getting 13 straight points from Valentine in a 23-13 run to close the half. He had eight points as the Spartans rattled off 10 in a row to launch the spurt that produced their largest lead of 15.

Michigan State shot 62 percent in the game’s opening minutes and built a 19-10 lead before Valentine even made his first basket. The Eagles answered with a 10-4 run to close to 23-20 before Valentine’s offensive outburst gave the Spartans a cushion.


Boston College: The Eagles were trying for their first 4-0 start since 2007. … Assistant coach Stan Heath, in his first season with the Eagles, spent five years in the same job under Izzo before leaving after the 2001 season.

Michigan State: Green played for the Spartans from 2008-12. … Michigan State evened the all-time series 3-3. … Valentine joined Green as one of only four Spartans to record a triple-double. Green had three in his career.


Boston College plays UC Irvine on Friday.

Michigan State plays Boise State on Friday.