The Michigan State Spartans are sitting with a record of 14-3 on the year and a national ranking of #18. Even Tom Izzo pondered out loud on Monday whether they are as good as that indicates. Regardless, one key ingredient is missing: The killer instinct.
The Spartans seemed cursed to play up or down to the level of competition. Something that is frustrating for the fans and coach alike. With a mid-week tilt with Penn State, the Spartans have a great opportunity to go on the road and possibly finally take care of an opponent they should dominate.
Do I expect it? No, because they haven’t done it all year. Does Izzo? His blatant candor and honesty may surprise you.
He said, “Well since we haven’t done that all year I don’t know why I’d pick Penn State to do it. But I don’t know what we can win by and I don’t even know if that matters anymore. I said this league has the best coaches in the whole country. I think top to bottom. I really do. And we’re in conference play now and people are going to take away what you do and they’re going to do different things. I think there’s going to be a lot of closer, closer games. If somebody gets up, then maybe you can expand it. But if it stays close then it’s going to end close.”
He went on to say, “I look at some of the unranked teams (in the B1G) right now, or the teams that maybe have struggled a little bit in the non-conference and they’re all playing pretty well. And Wisconsin’s tied for first in the league right now. Purdue and Iowa, they’re going to be tough teams to play against. And Nebraska, I mean, should we have played better? I think so. Are they very well coached and do a good job? Yeah, they do. But they had two guys. We did a hell of a job on their two studs, Talley and Gallegos. You do gotta look at it too. The kid banks in the three that was pretty well contested. Boy, then you start asking yourself, ‘what the hell’s going on?’ And we’ve done that. But we’ve got to go in there and play better than we’re playing. Play more solid.”
Why have the Spartans struggled to dominate the lower quality teams? Izzo expounded, “We’ve got to execute on offense. The turnovers we had last night, we only had 11 or 12, that’s an area that we’ve done a remarkably better job in the league. We went from like 16 to 12 almost. So we’ve done a much, much better job of that but we still had three or four last night that turned into direct layups and then your defense isn’t as good. So, I think if we can start scoring the ball more, rebounding a little better getting our outlets, get our fast break going, I think you play a little better defense than too when you’re scoring.”
Izzo loves football so until his team can master a killer instinct they are forced to being a grind it out team. Is Izzo content with that? “No, I have no comfort in it, can’t you tell? I hate it right now. You can say that’s what MSU has done, but we’ve blown out our teams. We’ve have very seldom, I don’t think, played to the level of our competition as much as we’re doing this year. And I still say there’s some leadership things on that. And I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I don’t think there’s any hidden agenda.”
So then why are the Spartans playing down to the competition? Izzo is searching for that answer. “It’s just that we had a great practice Saturday, we had a very good shootaround Sunday. One guy brought up something to me. We let them sleep in Sunday because we had no game till 6:00, we stayed in the hotel the night before, let them sleep in late because we thought rest, rest, rest because of the way the schedule’s been and how it’s going to be. And somebody said ‘God,’ he thinks too many guys slept in too late. There’s always something. But it really comes down to, guys just got to get their job, got to do their job as Bill Belichick says, ‘you’ve got to do your job.’ We’ve noticed on film where we’re supposed to be deep in the corners, we’re six feet up and it takes away our spacing and it takes away Appling’s ability to do some things.”
But Izzo doesn’t want the Spartan Nation to lose heart. He says that it isn’t just his Spartans that are struggling; it is a Big Ten wide epidemic. “We are a grind it out team right now. You look around the league there are a lot of people doing that. The shooting percentages have been down, I don’t know if the defenses are up from the top teams to the bottom teams a lot of teams not shooting the ball as well, some of that has to be attributed to good defense.”
The Spartans game against Penn State is the last of what was deemed three critical must win games. After Penn State the schedule gets much more difficult. A fact not lost on Izzo. “It is an important week for us. Because after the game on Wednesday, I think eight of our next eleven are against ranked teams and a couple of those are at Wisconsin and at Purdue that are non-ranked.”
What is racing through the mind of the mad scientist known as Izzo? “A disappointment that I have had is that we seem to play to our competition. I told our team last night we were lucky. We could be 12-5. One of them said coach, ‘We could be 17-0 to.’ There is some truth to that. A couple free throws away from doing something at Minnesota where team making a hellacious amounts of shots in Miami who’s a pretty good team, we have not been beat by anyone that is not real good. And yet we haven’t played as well against teams that I think we should beat. Although I don’t know where you put Boise right now, I don’t know where you put Iowa right now. I like both teams a lot. I don’t know where you put Texas right now, I do know where you put Kansas right now. So going into this week we have our work cut out.”
He’s right. At Michigan State, basketball seasons are judged for success by banners. This team has the talent, can they hang another?