Film Room: Can Tom Izzo fix what is wrong with Michigan State?

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No. 3 Michigan State lost on Monday night in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational to a Virginia Tech team that saw their top five players, and their head coach, bounce during the offseason.

Let me repeat that for you.

The preseason No. 1 team in the country flew all the way to Hawaii to get beaten by the team picked 14th in the ACC.

It was Michigan State’s second loss in the first five games of the season. They are the first team to be ranked No. 1 in the preseason to lose two of their first five games since … Cincinnati in 1996-97.

That, my friends, is not ideal.

But the truth is that it continues a trend that has started to become somewhat worrying, one that has played out over the course of the three games where Michigan State has faced off with high-major competition.

So just what is wrong with the Spartans?

I have some answers.


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Last year, the most memorable shot of the season for the Spartans, the shot that beat No. 1 Duke and sent Michigan State to the Final Four, did not come from Cassius Winston. Or Xavier Tillman. Or Aaron Henry. Or anyone that you would think it would.

It came from Kenny Goins.

The 6-foot-8 forward hit a three with 34 seconds over Zion Williamson, giving Michigan State a 68-66 lead. They would not need to score again to get to Minneapolis, and the key to Michigan State’s entire 2019-20 season could very well hinge on whether or not the Spartans have anyone on their roster than can make that exact same shot.

What happened on the play where Williamson left Goins was just a simple mental mistake – two guys followed Winston, no one followed Goins – and, in reality, it is a perfect example of why this year’s iteration of the Spartans are struggling.

The secret is out on how to stop the Spartans, who run ball-screens more than anyone else in college basketball: Sell out to keep Winston from beating you.

Kentucky discovered the recipe. Whenever a ball-screen was set for Winston, the Wildcats left two defenders with Winston for as long as possible, forcing the ball out of his hands. Their game-plan was, more or less, to let literally anyone else on the roster try to beat them. Seton Hall did the same thing. So did Virginia Tech. I’ve heard different terms used to describe exactly what this defense is – best I can tell, it’s something between a slow hedge and a soft double – but the intention for all three was pretty simple.

John Calipari, Kevin Willard and Mike Young decided they didn’t need to guard Thomas Kithier.

“If they want to double team Cash, we gotta make them pay for it,” Xavier Tillman told me. “By not having bigs that can shoot, it hurts us. The big will be open up top and he’s gotta take that shot. If he passes up the shot, that will be it. Malik, he can hit that shot on a consistent basis. So now, if you want to trap Cash, he’ll get an open three and knock it down.”

“It helps us space the floor out,” he added. “We can keep the defense honest.”

Now, the thing that makes Draymond Green so special and such a perfect fit in the Golden State system with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson is that he’s one of the best passers in the world for a big man. When defenses sell out to stop Steph in a ball-screen and Draymond receives the ball in a 4-on-3 or 3-on-2 situation, he can drive, he can shoot, he can make defenses pay for the attention they give to Golden State’s shooters. What makes him so special is that he almost always makes the right decision.

Thomas Kithier is not Draymond Green, and neither was Kenny Goins, but Goins was good enough to make some threes, and he did average 2.3 assists as a senior, and he did all of this as Michigan State’s leading rebounder and a very good frontcourt defender.

It should come as no coincidence, then, that the best half that the Spartans have played against high-major competition came in the half where Malik Hall, a freshman forward that is the closest thing Izzo has to Goins on his roster, scored 17 points, hit three threes and made all seven of the shots he took from the field.

“When [a big] shoots like that, and they’re doing all that roll and replace, and you have to deal with Tillman down low, and you have Gabe Brown in the corner and Aaron Henry in the corner, then all of a sudden you have to start switching pick and rolls and you have a four-man on Cassius Winston,” Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard said. “Good luck with that.”

The truth, however is that just has not been the case the majority of the season.

Take a look at these plays.

There is just no space for Cassius Winston to do anything on this side of the floor, but when the ball is rotated, the Spartans do not have the weapons to make them pay.

The question then becomes whether or not this is a problem that can be solved.

And I think it can be.

We know how young this Michigan State team truly is. There are really only three upperclassmen on the roster, and the freshmen and sophomores they have are more program guys than they are early entry candidates. Henry is an absolute monster, and when combined with Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, he gives Michigan State one of the best trios in the country.

But Gabe Brown is still learning what and when he has to do on the defensive end of the floor. Malik Hall has played one good half of basketball this season. Rocket Watts is still figuring out the college game. Those are the three guys that the Spartans need to get up to speed if they want to play a smaller lineup. Frankly, I think the most interesting lineup that the Spartans can roll out will feature Watts on the floor to move Winston off the ball with Henry and one of Brown, Hall or Ahrens on the floor with them.

I just don’t think Izzo trusts his younger guys enough to play that way right now.

They’ll get there with time.

It just may be more time than we initially expected.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.