From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.
NEW YORK — Michigan State, the No. 1 team in the country, knocked off Oklahoma in the title game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center late on Saturday night, picking up an 87-76 win that moved the Spartans to 6-0 on the season.
There were times on Saturday where Tom Izzo’s club was dominant. From about the midway point of the first half to the first media timeout of the second half, the Spartans turned a 22-11 deficit into a 53-35 lead. The Sooners didn’t have a chance, and that was essentially without Adreian Payne doing anything.
But there was a reason that Payne wasn’t doing anything, and, according to Izzo, that reason was the new emphasis on fouls in college basketball. Well after midnight, in the bowels of the Barclays Center, Izzo spent a good 12 minutes venting about the way the game is being called, which is noteworthy given the fact that the Spartans, you know, won!
“Everybody is going to think points are up. They’re up because free shots are free shots!” Izzo said. “What I’m worried about is are we going to teach [players to] just dribble in and get fouled? Is that good basketball? We had a two hour and 32 minute game tonight. Is that going to be good for basketball?”
(MORE: Denzel Valentine, the piece that makes Michigan State’s talent fit together)
Michigan State’s starting point guard, Keith Appling, finished the night with 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting. He took over down the stretch, hitting big shot after big shot as he got into the paint seemingly at will. Here’s the thing: that was by design. “I told Keith at the end, if he takes a jump shot I’ll kill him,” Izzo said. “I just want him to drive in there and get fouled.”
Izzo believes that’s the crux of the issue in college hoops right now. No contact is allowed, which means that defense can’t be played. The best offense, as a result, is to simply isolate your team’s best penetrator, allowing him to drive headlong into the lane and wait for an official to bail you out. That’s not entertaining. That’s not basketball. It’s a free throw contest, one that results-minded coaches are going to be forced to play to.
“What are we going to teach? Are we going to teach the kids to just drive in there?” Izzo said. “I’m going to coach it this week. Just drive in. I’m going to put on football pads again this week. Not to rebound, but offensively. Just go in there, full back dive, three yards and a cloud of dust.”
“It’s going to sound like I’m coming out and bitching about the officiating, but I’m not. I’m bitching about the rules.”
He’s also bitching about the consistency. On Friday night, I was courtside at Madison Square Garden to see No. 18 UConn knock off Indiana. There was plenty of contact with dribblers in that game. There were armbars on drivers, and there was even a bit of handchecking. Much of it went uncalled, and the result was arguably the best game of the season to date.
On Saturday night, fouls were called for looking at a player with the ball. There were 49 fouls and 66 free throws combined. “You think that’s hard on a coach or a writer,” Izzo said, “imagine being a player.”
The result of an inconsistent whistle will be players hesitating to defend. Take Payne as an example. He had his worst game of the season because a pair of early fouls destroyed his rhythm. If he picks up a quick foul in first couple of minutes the next time out, do you think he’s going to play any defense whatsoever if it means he’ll once again be destined for the bench.
“Everybody is going to think, ‘well, only five kids fouled out,'” Izzo said. “It’s not about fouling out. It’s about how you play after getting your second one. You’re going to play tentative. You’re going to play ole.”
“We’re going to be fooled that [we’re] scoring more points. I think before it’s done you’re going to see more teams zoning, and it’ll get slower yet.”