January 28, 2011

DotComp: Can Izzo rally MSU again?

EAST LANSING - Thoughts turned toward the streaks that were snapped as Michigan's 61-57 victory over Michigan State came to an end at Breslin Center on Thursday night.

Michigan had not beaten Michigan State at Breslin since Mateen Cleaves was a freshman back in '97.

Michigan had not beaten MSU in football or basketball in more than 1,100 days.

But, for Spartan observers, those streaks gave way to the more meaningful one, after this loss. And it has nothing to do with Michigan. It has to do with the streak of 13 straight years in the NCAA Tournament, the second longest in the country, and one of the main calling cards of the Spartans' status as a nuclear power in college basketball.

It's the third-longest streak in the country, trailing only Duke and Kansas. And this team is suddenly in the surprising, awkward role of being a questioned caretaker of the streak. No one could have dreamed that this team, loaded with the 2009 Big Ten MVP, and the 2010 NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional Most Outstanding Player, could be the one that breaks the streak.

The Spartans came into the season expecting to win a third straight Big Ten title, and make a run at a third straight Final Four. They said anything less than the National Championship would be a disappointment. But pursuit of those dreams hit a wall, Thursday, with the Spartans' latest episode of "Lost."

This one left Michigan State at 12-8 overall and 4-4 in Big Ten play. And now, the team is weaker than at any point all season, with junior sixth man Korie Lucious having been suspended for the rest of the season due to internal transgressions.

Lucious was in a slump when he was suspended from the team, but he still could be counted on for 25 solid minutes of basketball, the ability to affect defensive reactions with the dribble, and the ability to give rests to Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Keith Appling.

The impact of losing Lucious could not be completely understood until we all realized in vivid living color that Michigan State's only backcourt reserves are now walk-ons Mike Kebler and Austin Thornton.

In the last two years, the Spartans usually got hot when they went to the bench. On Thursday, when the Spartans tapped into their reserves midway through the first half, they lost the lead for good, lost momentum, and at times almost looked like a lost cause.

"We were up five at one point and I was waiting to check in at the scorers' table. By the time I got back in, I think we were down 8," Green said. "That was a real big stretch."

Actually, MSU was up 2 when he went out, and down 6 when he came back in. But it must have felt like a 13-point swing for the artist formerly known as the nation's best sixth man.

On Thursday, MSU's bench accounted for only 2 points on the night, a season low.

Entrusted With The Baton

Michigan State was viewed as a National Title favorite, coming out of last year's Final Four. But in addition to the graduation of Raymar Morgan, Izzo dismissed Chris Allen in August, and then suspended Lucious for the rest of the year, earlier this week.

Those three averaged more than one-third of MSU's player minutes a year ago, a combined 70 minutes per game (of a possible 200). They combined to average 25 points per game.

Freshman Russell Byrd was expected to help on the wing this year, but he is being redshirted after suffering foot injuries in the spring and summer. He got off of crutches only recently.

The playing group is now as thin as it was in '02 and '08, when the Spartans' main goal from the start of the season was to creep into the NCAA Tournament, keep the streak alive, and hand the baton to deeper, more talented Spartan teams of the future.

Those teams succeeded. I believe Tom Izzo's best coaching jobs of his career might have taken place during the talent recessions of '02 and '08.

This year, Izzo will need to work some similar magic, both schematically and psychologically, because most of the players on the roster seemed crushed in the locker room after this game.

Junior Draymond Green seemed absolutely depressed when speaking with reporters after Thursday's game. I haven't seen an MSU basketball player this despondent since seeing Eric Snow break down into tears after the loss to Weber State in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament.

Green said this loss was among the most frustrating of his career.

"Probably more frustrating than the National Championship loss," Green said, when asked where this loss ranked in terms of pain. "This one hurt bad. It hurt. Bad. (Deep exhale). It hurt."

Green wasn't close to tears. The problem was that he wasn't close to having an answer to the Spartans' woes.

"If I knew that, we'd be winning," Green said, when asked what the Spartans need in order to get on track. "I'm just loss right now. We have to figure that out, but it's tough to figure out. I've never really had to figure it out.

"I'm not used to losing," Green said, pausing to give a deep sigh. "I don't know. It's tough.

"I'm not sure what it is. That's something that I'm still trying to figure out. With me being the leader of the team I have to be the one to figure it out, and I'm struggling to figure it out."

And then this: Green was asked how hard it will be to focus on the next game, which will be played at home, against Indiana.

"Very hard, especially after a loss, not just a loss, but a loss to Michigan? It's very hard," Green said.

The only thing capable of getting Green and many of his Spartan teammates off the canvas is realization that they are playing for all of the Izzo-era players who came before them.

When asked if maintaining the streak becomes the goal now, Green said: "We have to. You don't want to be the team to break the streak. It's a possibility. But I still think we have a good enough team to get it going and not break the streak. But you have to think about it.

"That would hurt even worse than this loss. I have to figure something out quick."

Is that enough to get fired up about?

"It should be. It has me fired up," Green said, although his tone understandably lacked fire.

Green has been the front man of this team all season, the nerve center, the effervescent one. But now he is going to need someone or something to pull him up.

Enter an unlikely piper.

Lucas Is Pumped

Lucas has not been a vocal leader during his well-decorated career at Michigan State. His inability to say the right things at the right times often bothered Izzo, who believes every point guard should have heaping doses of Lombardi and Patton sewn into their DNA.

But the timing and occasion is right for Lucas to surprise.

The irony of Thursday's loss is that it marked the first game all year in which Lucas looked like he had almost all of his explosiveness and talent back at his disposal, nearly 10 months since rupturing his Achilles tendon. Last weekend, against Purdue, we saw him display blow-by burst for the first time all season. He was able to create shots for himself more easily than before, although he missed 13 of those shots.

Against Michigan, he consistently burst into openings, and this time made the majority of his shots, scoring 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting. However, due to Lucious's absence, Lucas had to log 37 minutes, an exceedingly high number for an Izzo point guard.

Because MSU trailed for most of the game, by as many as 14 with 16:43 to go, Lucas had his gas pedal to the floor, every minute he was on the court. By the end of the game, he was still making plays, but noticeably drained. That may have had an impact on him missing a lay-up that could have cut the lead to 5 with 3:55 left.

A little later, Lucas dug down and canned a 16-foot, step back jumper to cut it to 5 with 2:32 left. In the back of his mind, he knew that one should have cut it to 3.

And when Lucas drove, connected on a high-glasser while being fouled (a fortunate call, as he could just as easily have been whistled for a charge), his old-fashioned 3-point play cut it to 2 with 1:47 remaining. In the back of his mind, he figures that one should have tied it up.

"I am just starting to feel back like myself," Lucas said.

As devastating as this loss was to some of Lucas's teammates, as much as it seemed like the end, it didn't feel entirely that way to Lucas. To Lucas, it was his first game in nearly 12 months with his full set of wheels. The loss sucked. But Lucas was kind of excited to have so much burst back, along with his old ability to drain shots.

He's ready to play again. And he knows his team needs him.

"This is a tough loss but tomorrow, that's where I come in, the captains come in and we just have to encourage players and we have to get guys spirits back," Lucas said. "Guys are down from this loss and we have to get our spirits back and we have take out all our anger on Indiana and get it back one game at a time."

He sounded like he was looking forward to it. Really.

"I can go 37, 38, it doesn't matter," Lucas said, when asked if he is prepared to play longer minutes now that Lucious is gone."

Lucas doesn't take losses as hard as Green. This used to bother Izzo. But at this point, with Green and other teammates flattened, maybe it's good that Lucas has such a short memory when it comes to losses. And the timing is perfect for Lucas to come to the fore, physically and emotionally.

"My body is starting to feel better so I'm going to keep working hard and put the team on my back and start winning games," Lucas said. "We look around at our players, and players that have been in big games and played in big games with 50,000 people. We've went to Final Fours and all that stuff, so we know what it takes to get there and get back there but right now we are going through our ups and downs and we are going to keep working hard, and me being the captain of the team and a leader, I'm going to work to get guys' spirits back, and we're just going to keep moving forward."

Time To Re-Invent?

Izzo has been waiting four years for Lucas to say things like that. Next, Izzo will be looking to see if Lucas backs it up, in practice, in games, in the locker room, in the hotels, in the huddles.

And if this team is going to get back to winning, it will have to do it with a new style, and likely a new tempo.

This team is probably not capable of winning enough games to get into the NCAA Tournament unless it changes its style of play, and the way it rotates players.

With severe depth problems in the backcourt, this team is never going to be able to establish the trademark Izzo transition game. In fact, having the wings sprint the outside lanes in the old Heathcote blitz counterbreak seems counter-productive at this point.

"We're going to have to turn into a little bit of an Ohio State type team, meaning not having a lot of substitutions," Izzo said. "Most of our depth is in our bigs, yet (many opponents) are playing small right now, so that is going to be a little bit of a factor."

If Lucas is going to have to play 36-plus minutes a game, and freshman Keith Appling is going to have log 35-plus, and Summers too, then the Spartans might need to slow things down, and walk it up the court, and try to get maximum efficiency out of halfcourt sets. I think they need to get back to classic Heathcote basketball, like it or not, with guards logging mega minutes, with cutting and screening at a premium, and more interior touches.

If the Spartans slow it down, Lucas's ability to change speeds and grind through the gears might become even more effective in a half-court style of game. Tailor his stop-and-go quickness to a more deliberate style of play, and that might be the Spartans' only chance to wringing enough victories out of this incomplete roster to keep the NCAA Tournament streak alive.

Green played some small forward in the first half of the season, with mixed results. He is less effective on offense as a three, compared to the four. And he is much less effective on defense as a three. Thus, if he needs to play the three, one has to wonder if the Spartans might be wise to incorporate the use of a zone defense to mask their deficiencies in perimeter quickness. Izzo has said every preseason since the dawn of time that he planned to use a little bit of zone defense, but he almost never actually does it.

The last time I remember Izzo using much zone was during the loss to Michigan in 2003. MSU played zone defense on baseline out-of-bounds plays, and it proved to be a major mistake on that day as LaVal Blanchard nailed a pair of 3-pointers in such situations.

Izzo used some 1-2-2 zone in Izzo's first three seasons as head coach, a defense that was a holdover from the Heathcote days. Then he tapered it back to using zone only on in-bound plays. Then he got rid of it entirely, and hasn't played more than a possession or two of zone defense in the last eight years.

Will he look to play some zone defense now? He might think about it. He might even give it a look in practice. But will he go to it? I don't know. But I'm sure Izzo knows he has to do something different.

Digging Out Of This Hole

In the past, Izzo teams have responded well, when their NCAA Tournament resumes became soiled. Need a memory refresher?

  • In 2002, Michigan State was 14-10 and 5-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 15, with only five conference games remaining. MSU won all five, and somehow finished 10-6 in the Big Ten.

    Izzo relied on three freshmen (Alan Anderson, Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert) among his top six players that year. When injuries and foul trouble hit his front line, he had to put a walk-on practice dummy into the game during a loss to Stanford in Oakland, Calif., in late December. Izzo admitted after the game that he didn't even know Brian Westrick's name until he had to tell the kid to get to the scorer's table and check in against Stanford. Izzo had to ask an assistant what the kid's name was. "I don't know," said one of Izzo's assistants. "The guys call him 'Bouiee.'"

    So Izzo looked down the bench and said, 'Bouiee! Get in the game.'"

    Westrick took the court. His jersey didn't have a name on the back. Izzo, Scout's Honor, said he didn't know the guy's name was Brian Westrick until he read it on the post-game stat sheet.

    Westrick turned out to be a nice, solid, good soldier, part of the lore of the Izzo era, one of the army ants who helped will this streak to 13 years.

    That team lost to North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In addition to the three freshmen, MSU's other three main players were Marcus Taylor, Aloysius Anagonye and Adam Ballinger. The seventh man? They didn't have one. Tim Bograkos saw 14 minutes as a walk-on freshman against N.C. State. Jason Andreas was next up, with 11. That was all.

    That team's lack of post reserves is similar to this year's lack of backcourt subs. Izzo found a way to get that team to grind it out and get back to the tournament.

  • In 2003, Michigan State was 14-11 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 25 with no quality non-conference wins. But Izzo made a late-season change at point guard, establishing Anderson as the trigger man. They took Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse to overtime at Breslin, and then won five straight.

    The Spartans hammered Colorado and No. 2 seed Florida in the NCAA Tournament, then beat defending National Champion Maryland in the Sweet 16, before losing to Texas in the Elite Eight in San Antonio.

    That was Izzo's first post-Flintstone team of note. But they lost 13 games.

    That team was different from the current squad in that they had the depth to develop a dangerous transition game as the season progressed. MSU went 11 deep, with freshmen Davis, Maurice Ager, Erazem Lorbek and even juco transfer Rashi Johnson added to the Hill, Tobert, Anderson, Anagonye, Ballinger nucleus. Ballinger went haywire at midseason, but Izzo pushed the right buttons at mid-season and not only prolonged the streak but nearly put a banner in the rafters.

  • The very next year, in 2004, Michigan State was a preseason top five team. But Izzo over-scheduled (sound familiar), and the Spartans lost to Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse in the pre-conference season. Izzo said he was stung by Lorbek's surprise departure to the European pro league.

    The Spartans were 5-7 overall and 0-1 in Big Ten play on Jan. 13.

    But the Spartans rallied to the top of the Big Ten standings and would have won Izzo's fourth Big Ten title if Hill had hit the front end of a one-and-one in the final seconds of a dreadful overtime loss to Wisconsin in the regular season finale.

    MSU lost to Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

    Aside from Davis, that team was extremely low on post players. MSU listed Torbert as a guard, but he played the four, and capitalized on extra open space by leading the Big Ten in 3-point percentage. Against Nevada, Andreas played 24 minutes. Matt Trannon logged 6 and true freshman Drew Naymick played 2.

    Anderson failed to progress as a point guard.

    Afterward, Izzo pledged to ride the emerging legs of Ager and Shannon Brown, and utilize Torbert and Hill as reserves following season.

    That team was deep, but troubled by inconsistent reserves. Finishing second in the Big Ten, after a 5-7 start, was actually quite an accomplishment, or perhaps an indictment of a weak Big Ten (only four teams earned NCAA Tournament bids, only one team made it to the Sweet 16, Illinois, and the Illini made it no farther).

  • In 2007, the Spartans were 17-8 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 12. That's two games under .500 in conference play, with only six Big Ten games remaining.

    MSU responded by winning four straight, including a victory over No. 1-ranked Wisconsin at Breslin Center.

    MSU rallied to 8-6 in conference play, but then lost to Michigan and Wisconsin in the last two games of the regular season.

    The Spartans eked out a victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. With an 8-8 conference record, if the Spartans had lost that game, they might not have received an NCAA Tournament bid.

    Izzo knew the '07 team would be low on talent, and put together a light (for MSU) non-conference schedule. MSU beat Texas and lost to Maryland in a preseason tournament, lost at Boston College in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and then beat BYU at The Palace in the Spartans' only other challenging non-conference game.

    Neitzel had an All-America type season. The Spartans played good team defense around him, with freshman Raymar Morgan and sophomroe Travis Walton providing some Ohio toughness.

    How thin were the Spartans? They had only six credible players. Marquise Gray started and played 27 minutes against UNC as a sophomore. The seventh man was Maurice Joseph, who played 17 minutes in a victory over Marquette in the NCAA Tournament. The eighth man was walk-on Jake Hannon, a native of Wyoming who wondered onto the team from the intramural ranks. He played 8 minutes against Marquette, and nine minutes in guarding Tyler Hansbrough two nights later.

    Somehow this MSU bunch led No. 1 seeded North Carolina, in Winston-Salem, 57-54, with 8:48 remaining. Izzo's coaching wizardry resulted in open jumper after open jumper for Neitzel, but UNC had too much depth and emptied Neitzel's legs on the defensive end with excessive sprinting. Neitzel logged 38 minutes, and had 17 good looks from 3-point range, but went just 9-of-27 from the field. UNC's offense was its defense, choosing to defend Neitzel by wearing him down by making him sprint back on defense at every turn, rather than locking up in the halfcourt. It worked. After this game, Izzo vowed to get back to running and blitzing, with the anticipated arrival of Lucas, Summers and Allen the following year.

    Grit Like '07?

    Of these teams, the current Spartans have the most in common with the '07 team, when Neitzel was a junior. MSU maxed out Neitzel, the way the Spartans will need to max out Lucas down the stretch this season.

    This year's team has much more experience around the lead guard, with Summers, Roe and Green.

    The '07 team somehow enjoyed one of the best defensive seasons of any team in MSU history. Izzo still isn't sure how they did this. Naymick was a wall inside. Gray had his moments. Morgan and Walton were tight on the wings.

    MSU's current wing guards looked stationary and stagnant at times against Michigan on Thursday, accentuated by the absence of Lucious. Summers can't dribble or pass, but he and Appling are skilled jets compared to Walton and the freshman version of Morgan.

    But Walton and Morgan were extremely tough. It's doubtful that Izzo will be able to elicit that kind of toughness out of Appling and Summers. But that might be the team's only chance. Summers showed some nads and interest on defense in the second half against Purdue, and in this game against Michigan. If MSU is going to get this thing done, they'll need Summers to stay committed on defense.

    The Spartans will have to give up on being a dangerous team in transition. All of Izzo's teams that have failed to make the Sweet 16 have one thing in common: a lack of depth. This year's team falls into that category.

    But first, the Spartans must get to the NCAA Tournament. MSU has shown signs of being a quality defensive team, although the Spartans' last three opponents have shot out of their minds from 3-point range.

    If that trend continues, and the Spartans remain cold, Michigan State could wind up in the NIT for the first time since 1990-something. If that sentence scares the players as much as it scares you, well, then that's a start.

    MSU has 10 games left.

    With MSU's terrific non-conference strength of schedule, the Spartans should be shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament if they get to 10-8 in the Big Ten (18-12 overall). "Should" is the key word there. The selection committee's value of non-conference strength of schedule seems to change every year. If MSU gets to 18-12 and doesn't get in, Izzo will raise holy Hell on Selection Sunday. Get the five-second delay ready.

    A 6-4 finish will get MSU to 18-12 and 10-8.

    Getting to 7-3 is the safest ticket for the Spartans. A record of 19-11 and 11-7 would put the Spartans in for sure.

    Are there seven wins remaining on the schedule? It'll be tight.

    Pencil in losses at Ohio State and at Wisconsin.

    Although the game against Michigan taught us that no victories should be chalked up as sure-things, let's assume the Spartans crank it up well enough to get wins against Indiana, at Iowa, Penn State and then another one at home against Iowa.

    MSU would have to go 3-1 in the following four swing games in order to get to 7-3: vs. Illinois, at Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Michigan.

    Do you see three wins in there?

    Not me. Not the way they are playing. The question is whether Izzo can guide the team to change the way they are playing.

    Can Izzo make make key mid-to-late season adjustments, as he did in '03?

    The '07 Spartans knew they were underdogs all season, and they developed a respectable level of grit and determination.

    This year's team is coming from the opposite direction, like the over-ranked '02 team (which was No. 15 in the preseason) and the slow-to-gel '03 team (ranked No. 9 in the preseason).

    Both teams banded together after being sub-.500 in the Big Ten. Izzo has rescued teams from precarious positions in the past.

    Izzo has reason to be completely confident at this stage. He's done it before.

    "It just depends if we're going to feel sorry for ourselves or get our act together," Izzo said. "A kid like Appling, it's not all his fault but he really struggled with some of the coverages tonight. We just have to get him more and more ready to play because he is athletic enough to guard smaller guys.

    "I keep saying we are making some progress in some areas but it's kind of like I told a couple of those freshmen: You don't get to play major college basketball - it's not AAU tournaments - and make three or four mistakes in a row and give up six or eight points and think you're going to get them back, especially when there are only 60 points scored. Six or eight or 10 makes a big difference. A couple of lay-ups make a big difference."

    Izzo will find the areas in film study, and give the Spartans every opportunity to fix them in practice, and in games.

    But - as was the case last week, and the week before - it won't matter if the Spartans continue to shoot poorly.

    This was supposed to be Izzo's best shooting team ever, with Lucas, Summers, Allen and Lucious capable of running and ripping from deep.

    Instead, the Spartans rank last - repeat, dead last - in field goal percentage.

    Perhaps MSU will have to do more than alter their defense to meet their personnel shortages. The Spartans might also have to change the way they are operating in the halfcourt.

    Izzo's on it.

    He's not happy about it. But he's on it.

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