The national tipoff for college basketball will once again include Michigan State as a central figure. And once again, Spartan players and coaches will away as richer people for the experience. MSU has shot poorly as a team from the foul line in the two exhibition games. Izzo doesn't seem worried about it as a continuing problem.
Last year, Michigan State played in the Carrier Classic against North Carolina in the nation's first basketball game of the year, shook hands with President Barack Obama, met U.S. troops, toured an Aircraft Carrier and gained an appreciation for the service of American men and women who serve.
This year, No. 14-ranked Michigan State is playing in the nation's first college basketball game of the year when the Spartans tip off against Connecticut (5 p.m., ESPN) at the Ramstein Air Base in Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany.
On Wednesday, the life-experience portion of the trip hit home for the players. Players from both teams visited the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center where they met wounded and/or hospitalized men and women of the armed forces.
"For anybody who was there, it's a reality check for you," said Russell Byrd "It gives you a good perspective on life. I was talking with (ESPN's) Dan Shulman and he was saying, 'I'm thinking about calling the game, you're thinking about making shots and these guys are life-and-death, for the most part, every day.' It just gives you a reality check."
Byrd and co-captain Derrick Nix joined Tom Izzo in a memorable bed-side meeting with Sgt. Davidson Christmas, who was wounded in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Christmas will be returning home to the United States soon, but told Nix, Byrd and Izzo that he would rather go back to Afghanistan.
"When he said that he was disappointed that he couldn't go back, that really touched me," Nix said. "That means I have a lot of improvement when it comes to being a teammate and a captain because he was the leader of his unit and he was sad and said he was calling every day to make sure they were all right (back in Afghanistan)."
"We're doing what we love but the things that they do over here are life and death," Byrd said. "As we saw in the hospital there are people who have been there for a year, just trying to recover, trying to stay alive. So it's humbling."
Spartan players and coaches also put on a clinic for military children while in Germany.
"I leaned more from this than the aircraft carrier (last year)," Nix said. "I got to learn a lot about the miliary. Those guys and girls are fighting for us and we don't even have a clue on what they're doing for us."
Michigan State has become a common participant in national "event" type of games during the Izzo era.
"But we haven't won enough of them," Izzo laughed.
It isn't a joke.
The Spartans remember last year's Carrier Classic with fondness, but the double-digit loss to preseason No. 1 North Carolina is not a bright spot in the memory bank.
Spartan teams have had a penchant for losing early-season national showcase type games, going back to various preseason tournament defeats, the Basketbowl in 2003 and last year's first chapter of the Champions Classic, a loss to Duke in New York City.
"A win," Byrd said, when asked earlier this week what he was looking forward to the most regarding the trip to Germany.
Nix agreed during interviews in Germany on Thursday.
"I'm a senior and one thing I want to do is I want to win a big preseason game," Nix said. "We are losing (these) every year. You get sick of losing. I do. I want to set out some foot steps before I leave. I want to try to go out and beat UConn."
The Latest From Rheinland-Pfalz
Freshman center Matt Costello returned to practice on a limited basis earlier in the week after being lost on Oct. 29 to a severely bruised back. In Germany, his practice availability and on-court capabilities increased dramatically.
"He practiced yesterday the hardest he has practiced in over a week and he might be available (for Friday's game)," Izzo said in Germany. "How comfortable I'll be in playing him, I don't know but if he he practices like he did yesterday and today he is going to help us more than I thought."
Costello was Michigan's Mr. Basketball award winner last year and is a candidate for a role as the first or second big man off the bench when healthy.
"Nix said he is the strongest guy he has gone against," Izzo said. "Costello has some energy. He loves to play, so that is going to help but I don't know if that is going to help this game."
Sophomore Alex Gauna has served as the first big man off the bench in Michigan State's two exhibition games, with Costello unavailable. Byrd also plays power forward, and sophomore starter Branden Dawson is also expected to begin getting more minutes at power forward, in addition to his usual wing forward position.
With Costello returning to form, Izzo's deep playing group gets a little deeper.
"It's hard to play 11 (players), it's hard to play 10," Izzo said. "Someone is going to fall off, someone is going to move up. I don't know how it's going to happen. They're going to determine that.
"But at the same time it depends on the teams that we play and the lineups we play against."
Jet Lag Factor
The Spartans traveled more than 4,500 miles and several time zones to play in Germany, as did Connecticut. Germany's Central European time zone is six hours ahead of East Lansing's Eastern time zone. Friday's tip-off will take place at 11 p.m., German time.
Izzo has been staggering workout times and walk-up calls accordingly.
"We tried to let them sleep in and try to get closer to our time, try to make them stay up late at night, go to bed at 2 (a.m.) and try to get up at 10 (a.m.)," Izzo said. "That's still 4 in the morning. It's not perfect but it is the best we can do under the circumstances."
Izzo, speaking with a hoarse voice, seems to be in a March-like level of RPMs, with or without REM sleep.
"I don't sleep much anyway, so for me it doesn't matter," Izzo said.
What About UConn?
UConn returns two players who averaged double-figures for last year's team, which went 20-14 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Iowa State. Former head coach Jim Calhoun is also gone, having retired during the offseason.
UConn has only four roster players remaining from the Huskies' 2011 National Championship team. Only guard Shabazz Napier (6-1, 171, Jr.) played a regular role with the 2011 team.
Napier and sophomore Ryan Boatright (6-0, 160, Soph.) make up the strength of the Huskies team.
"Those guards are pretty good," Izzo said. "They've got size but not bulk (down low). We've got bulk and some size. Their edge is at the guards in a way.
"Those two guards are not good, they're great."
MSU will counter with one of Izzo's best defensive backcourts in junior Keith Appling and true freshman Gary Harris. Dawson also has lock-down capabilities on the wing when properly focused.
UConn has three players from Germany, Niels Giffey (a 6-7 wing who averaged 2.6 point per game last year), true freshman Leon Tolksdorf, and 7-foot-1 Enosch Wolf, who averaged just 1.3 minutes per game last year.
UConn is ineligible for postseason play this year due to substandard Academic Progress Rate score.
New UConn head coach Kevin Ollie has reportedly been trying to prepare his team to out-run a physical, half-court style of Spartan team. But Michigan State intends to be a more uptempo team than some may realize.
"I think we both want to run, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out," Izzo said.
No Major Changes Yet
Izzo indicated after last week's sloppy exhibition victory over St. Cloud State that he would look at altering the lineup to play Dawson more at the four while playing Payne less at the four. Payne started at the four (power forward) in the two exhibition games, and struggled with perimeter defense against smaller matchups.
Izzo now says Payne will likely continue to start at the four while Izzo continues to teach and evaluate.
"This will be the earlier or second-earliest we have ever played a game," Izzo said. "It seems like we haven't had any practice time."
As for the starting lineup, Izzo said: "I don't plan on changing that much. We are going to stick what we have right now but you are going to see more of B.J. (Dawson) at the four. And depending on what happens with Costello when he comes back, we will look at some other lineups."
Dawson Responding Well
Izzo said Dawson has been practicing and responding well since taking a little bit of criticism following a sleepy performance against St. Cloud State. Dawson had just four points and five rebounds with three turnovers while fouling out against St. Cloud.
In MSU's first exhibition game against Northwood (Fla.), Dawson had a team-high 16 points with seven boards.
"B.J. was good in the first game and not very good in the second game," Izzo said. "We have to understand that he's not back. Don't forget the six or seventh months that he was away with the knee injury. But he had good practices after (the St. Cloud game)."
"He went from a c-minus level to a d-minus level (of play)," Izzo said. "He didn't know it during the game, but he knew it after the game. When seeing Nix running by him on the break (on film), I think some of it is not understanding how hard you have to go."
Izzo dug out Spartan archives of past heros to show Dawson how it is supposed to be done on the Spartan break.
"I showed him film of Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Jason Richardson because he is a Richardson-type clone," Izzo said. "I think it was a couple of days before that game that Keith says, 'Coach, why don't you get some film of Shannon Brown and Mo Ager?' I guess I didn't realize the difference. Charlie, J.R. and Morris, they flew down those lanes and made some dunks and a lot of lay-ups, but Mo Ager and Shannon Brown just treated the rim like their worst enemy. So we put a highlight film together of that.
"When you ask Branden about it, ask him how he compares his running to those guys and I think he might have a different answer."
But Izzo still acknowledges that coming back from injury is an obstacle for Dawson.
"Is part of it the leg? No question," Izzo said. "It's not that he is having any problems in terms of soreness. He is practicing without the brace now. He doesn't like to play with the brace, which is a step because some guys want it as something to cling to.
"He has to learn that his motor has got to pick up. It's an RPMs thing; they are running a little shallow of where they need to be. I think he sees that. I think he knows it.
"Also remember he played center and power forward in high school. Now we are running a lot. If you look at it, Gary Harris is getting out there and finishing. B.J. is an even better athlete, he just has to learn how to do it. He has had a great couple of days. I think you will see a difference in him."
"Sometimes the light goes on for a guy; sometimes the light goes off. The great players have been told all their lives that they're great players. If I show them anybody but Earvin, they think, 'Who's he?'"
Film of Peterson, Ager, Bell, Brown might not have the initial impact on Dawson that it would have had on other in-state players.
"I say, 'By the way, all those guys are where you want to get. That's who they are,'" Izzo said. "That's the difference with some guys that have embraced the past and guys that are still figuring that out.
"When Mateen was here, and I said Earvin is coming or Snow or Respert are coming to practice, he'd be climbing the walls. If I told B.J., that would be just another guy."
So Izzo took another approach in trying to get through to Dawson.
"I talked to him a lot about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Not a great shooter. Second pick in the Draft. Enormous motor.
"As he is starting to figure that out, 'If I have to have a higher motor to get where I want to get ...'
"It's all part of the process. B.J, if he gets that motor, he is going to be one of the best that played here. He really will be."
Appling's Cold Remedy
Izzo boasted of Appling's improved shooting ability during the early fall. But Appling was just 2-of-7 from 3-point range during the exhibition games and 7-of-18 overall.
"Keith shot about 2,500 to 3,000 shots every week since last season ended," Izzo said. "I asked him how much he is shooting now per week, extra, on top of practice.
"He said, 'I don't get as much in. A little tired. 16 hours of classes a week.
"And we look at practice and he gets about 100 shots in practice."
Since last weekend, Appling has been trying to manage more shot attempts between practices.
"So he took 700 shots a day in the summer and now is at about 100," Izzo said. "So I told him, 'We have to figure out a way for you to get more shots up.'
"I've been really pleased with Keith. He made some passes that have made me stop practice and say, 'You never would have done that a year ago.' Not that he couldn't have made those passes, I just think his mentality has changed. He is pushing the ball. He could be a classic example of a guy maturing in his position and buying into what he needs to do to help his team.
"I'm going to keep on him about communicating. He is maturing a lot. He is understanding more. He is in more, he is seeing more film. He has played the best of anybody as far as consistency."
Kansas Can Wait
After flying out of Germany late Friday night (Michigan time), the Spartans will get home and get set for a Monday flight to Atlanta to face No. 7-ranked Kansas in the second installment of the Champions Classic. MSU played Duke in the inaugural Champions Classic last year in New York.
"Plenty of film coming back," Izzo said of preparation for the Jayhawks, "None going in, yet. But on that nice, eight-, nine-hour flight coming back, we will have a lot of ability to watch film. But we haven't done any preparation on Kansas yet. The first game (against UConn) is too big to worry about the second game. We are going into that first game, then try to figure out how to handle that second one when we get back."
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