NEW YORK – Tom Izzo has never been one to back down from an early season challenge.
While most programs are scheduling cupcakes and tune-ups to begin the season, Izzo has taken his Michigan State team and put them on the floor in the two biggest games of the season thus far. Last Friday, he lost to North Carolina 67-55 at the Carrier Classic, the most-watched college basketball game since North Carolina played Duke in March of 2006 that counted President Obama as a member of the crowd. Last night, his Spartan team became the answer to a trivia question, going down in infamy as the team on the losing end of Coach K’s record-setting, 903 victory, 74-69.
For those keeping score at home, that means that the entire college basketball watching world has now seen the Spartans get smacked by two of the top six teams in the country in the season’s first ten days.
And while the outcomes of the games wasn’t ideal, Izzo wouldn’t go back and change this season’s schedule.
“I’d sign up for the same schedule tomorrow,” Izzo said in the bowels of a newly renovated Madison Square Garden after the game Tuesday night. “We’re going to be a better basketball team in one week, in two weeks, in three weeks because we knuckled down and played these games.”
Izzo finds himself in a bit of a unique situation this season. Michigan State is recognized as one of the top basketball programs in the country, and rightfully so. That’s what six Final Four trips and a national title in the span of 13 years earns you. But Izzo doesn’t have a powerhouse on his hands this season. This year, the Spartans are the scrappy underdogs, the team with players that are learning new roles and relying on effort and hard work to remain competitive.
Michigan State does not have a roster full of McDonald’s all-americans and future first-round picks this season. They have a team that will be successful when they defend and they battle on the glass, but in order for the wins to come, the Spartans need to eliminate the mistakes offensively.
Derrick Nix cannot miss three or four point blank layups like he did against Mason Plumlee on Tuesday night. Travis Trice cannot commit four turnovers without an assist if he’s going to be playing the point.
More importantly, Draymond Green has to be better offensively. Against Duke, he finish 4-15 from the floor with five turnovers and just two assists. More importantly, he had just one offensive rebound after grabbing seven against North Carolina. Green forced the issue too much. He’s the best player that Michigan State has, but he’s at his best when he’s facilitating the offense, not playing as the Spartan’s go-to scorer.
That role has to fall at the feet of Keith Appling, who finally looked like the dominant scorer everyone expected him to be in the final eight minutes of the game. He finished with 22 points on 8-10 shooting from the field, getting to the rim with ease late in the game. The Spartans need Appling to provide that offensive aggressiveness for 40 minutes, not at the end of the game when the outcome has been decided.
“We’re going to get better,” Izzo said.
And he’s right. Everyone that has watched this team will agree. Its built in the mold of the an early-2000’s Tom Izzo team, and there may not be a elite coach out there that is better in the role of the underdog than him. But with so many players taking over new roles this year, its going to take time.
“I’m trying to build a team for the year,” he said, “not just for one or two games.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.