Midway into the toughest week of the Big Ten schedule, Spartan Basketball now stands at 6-1 in the league, buzzing at the top after their huge win in Madison. The road win over Bo Ryan’s Badgers can serve as a solid boost in competing for what’s already stood out as the deepest Big Ten season in modern times. “I don’t think there’s any question the leagues the best it’s ever been from top to bottom,” Tom Izzo told Spartan Nation earlier this week, before the Wisconsin game. “In our league this year, every week is like this…it’s really going to become part of the norm.”
Next for MSU is probably their toughest road test of the year, a 1:00 start at Indiana on Sunday. As the Spartans have raised their game during Big Ten play, Adreian Payne continues progress despite a quieter night in Madison. “He lost a lot of his Freshmen year with the shoulder surgery that he had at the end of his Senior (High School) year,” Izzo began while explaining such a big jump in AP’s play this year. “I look at him, at the most right now…he’s in his second year, not his third.”
Payne’s starting to rack up numbers, but what’s stood out most recently has been his intensity and explosiveness. He has a much better chance to keep that going for the balance of the season because he added around 15 pounds of bulk strength in the off-season. Payne needed that added muscle to keep from fading away as the banging inside the Big Ten can add up as the calendar creeps towards March.
Payne needs to keep focus on bringing high energy with him on a night in, night out basis. His career probably hasn’t gone near the way he expected when he first committed to MSU a few years back now, but it appears he’s got a growing desire to produce the same final result he was initially looking for.
Payne’s not the only Spartan that needs to work to bring his “A-game” (if you can remember a Tiger Woods reference from the late 90s) each night. “They know that every team they’re playing is good, they respect every team,” Tom Izzo told us about the depth of the Big Ten opponents. “Yet, I don’t want them playing so uptight that they don’t think they can make mistakes, because they’re going to make mistakes.”
Izzo has already seen real progress where the Spartans needed improvement most. “You look at our turnovers, they’ve been cut damn near in half compared to the early part of the season,” he reflected. “We had a couple of 20-point turnover games (early this year).” The Spartans could only get better after starting the year by coughing up far more possessions than necessary or advised by their Coach, who’s always been quick to point out the value of “respecting the basketball.” To their credit, they have, and their overall play is clear uptick, now winning six straight.
“Now we’re getting more guys playing better and with more energy.” Izzo pointed to the front court play of Derrick Nix, Payne, and Branden Dawson that’s led the way. His staff is now looking for a burst from the back court. “It’s our guards that gotta play a little better.” If they do, Izzo believes this Spartan squad can take another step forward in their chase to defend the Big Ten Championship.
One Guard whose game is coming along is Sophomore Travis Trice. That’s not because Trice is a slow starter, but because he missed a chunk of the summer, then went down with a significant injury in Germany. “Where B.J. (Dawson) missed seven months, Travis only missed two and a half but he lost 25 pounds during that period,” Izzo said. In that time he was weakened by a sickness that kept him from building up his strength, then of course came the concussion versus UConn in November’s season opener.
“He can play the 2 (Shooting Guard), he can play the 1 (Point Guard), and he’s played pretty well defensively,” Izzo added about Trice’s versatility. That aspect of Trice’s game is a key to getting this team playing as well as it can. “I’m trying to get it to be more of a full court game,” Izzo added, and Trice is a big piece to completing that puzzle. The emerging Sophomore’s basketball IQ, court sense, and pure shooting ability (especially when he squares up) could be enough to give the back court the boost needed to catch up to the play up front.
Though Wisconsin always strives to stifle any opportunity for opponents to get out and run, look for Izzo to have his guys pushing it more against opponents moving forward. That may not be as wise, however, against one of the top scoring teams in the nation that they will visit in Bloomington on Sunday. They’re more likely to really pick their spots to run against the Hoosiers than they are to just free wheel it.
The Indiana game may move at a much faster pace than the Wisconsin game did, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be any less of a grind. “People want to say it’s the Big Ten…it’s a lot of leagues right now,” Izzo explained. “When there’s two top teams playing, 90% of the time it’s going to be a grind it out game……that’s the way they are in any sport.” He’s exactly right. Think about the recent classics between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers (currently Pro Sports best rivalry), those games have always been a real grind, though many have finished with more than enough scoring to keep them from being labeled anything close to ugly.
Some look at classic “grinders” as more of a physical test of attrition than anything else. Others see them truly as a mental final exam because when they’re close at the finish, the mentally tougher team usually wins. Izzo sees no clear distinction, but a clear combination of both elements. “The grinding out just means it’s going to be tough, physical games…and that’s when you’re playing for a lot.”
The Spartans are now half way through their biggest week of the Big Ten season, though as we all know, they all count one. Going to Indiana will be an interesting test that comes at the right time for this team that’s got to be flying high off the extremely rare road win against the Bucky’s Badgers. They’ve also got the spotlight win over Kansas earlier this year to keep enough bounce in their step to play with Indiana.
Luckily the IU contest is early on Sunday, though that doesn’t guarantee the Hoosier fans will be any less noisy. Nor does it mean the Assembly Hall environment will be any less intimidating. They may be a little slow to get going, but don’t think they’re going to less jacked up to see Tom Izzo and the Spartans.
“We’re finding ways to win and we’re doing some good things,” Izzo concluded before his team pulled out the energizing win in Madison. That’s just life in the Big Ten this year, and just might be the way these Spartans kind of like it.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- Basketball is a lot more mental than it looks, especially at crunch time. That’s when the game becomes the most like NFL football, with more games lost than won, and mental mistakes most often making the difference.
- College Basketball Officials are under more scrutiny than ever, which if used properly can lead to a better entertainment and competitive product. The NCAA needs its Officials to protect the flow of the game more than anything right now. Too many disruptions, and usually too many whistles for silly Fouls, are holding it back.
- Maybe the only thing that should be under a brighter spotlight than College Officiating is the clearly failed “One and Done” rule. If the NBA won’t take the lead on it though, what can the NCAA really do about it? They haven’t done enough, and need to get this rule switched to align with the Hockey or Baseball version immediately, before admitting the class of 2013.