Michigan State and their future Hall of Fame Coach Tom Izzo have a golden opportunity today. They are heading to Bloomington to take on one of the best college basketball teams in the nation. The Hoosiers are stacked with great talent and the arena is one of the most difficult places to play in the nation. It is arguably the Mecca of college basketball.
This is one of the rare times that Michigan State has NOTHING to lose and EVERYTHING to gain. If you picked the Hoosiers to win, as I have, it isn’t a slam on Izzo or his program. The Spartans are loaded with great talent themselves and when looking for the ever elusive X fact or in sports, MSU may have it. There are ZERO expectations and the weight of the world rests on IU.
Adreian Payne and the MSU bigs could be the major key. Izzo said of the game, “It’s got a big test for A.P. but you know, what we are starting to figure out on some of these things is that they got to matchup with us too. We’re gonna do some different things. We’re gonna still move some people around. I’m kind of excited to see. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. A big CBS game and a top five team on the road. It doesn’t get any bigger than this and I think we are in a pretty good frame of mind although we have an extra day which is good and bad. Because I think guys are a little tired of practicing. This was a long practice for us today, for a in the middle of the season practice, but I think we are getting some things done so I am as anxious to see it as you guys are.”
Today the Spartans need a big game from their big three of Payne, Derrick Nix and Branden Dawson. Izzo agreed saying, “Yeah, it’s a big key. It’s a big key. Now a lot of people say they go as Hulls goes, but I think that is a big key because we can’t get into all kinds of foul trouble the way they penetrate and the way they go at you with Zeller. Zeller puts the ball on the floor a lot, that’s why he drives and fouls, he’s shooting eight free throws a game, I think seven or eight, and Watford’s getting six, six and a half a game. That’s a lot of free throws out of two guys. Actually, Oladipo’s getting I think four a game. So you look at those three guys there’s a lot of free throws. They’re making more than most people are shooting.”
I have said many times that in sports, when you have teams that are equal in talent the key is to exploit what you do. Too much is said for adjusting to others, sometimes you just have to line up and let them worry about you. Izzo concurs. “Which one? I don’t really care how they adjust. I mean we’re gonna still play what we play. But that means B.J. is still gonna be all over. We are moving him all around. If we are getting really hurt. I mean you look at the Ohio State game and there was some things that were hard for us, but there were some things that were hard for them and it is a chess match and that is what it comes down to. I got some faith in those bigs right now. Three of them are doing a pretty good job.”
You hear a lot of talk about IU players Cody Zeller, or Victor Oladipo, but Izzo has another name on his mind that he thinks is critical towards the outcome of this game: Jordan Hulls. Izzo said this when breaking down the Hoosiers, “It’s kind of funny because Oladipo is one of the toughest match ups because he can play so many positions and he can play so hard. I mean I don’t think there is a guy in college basketball that plays as harder than Oladipo and with his athleticism. You know Hulls still makes a lot of things happen when you look at the games that they have won and they have lost. When he has played good and when he has played bad or when he hasn’t shot well, because there is a definite correlation between the two. So the one thing I think he has, and I have said this from the beginning, I think he has more depth than anybody. More quality depth. They’ve got starters from other years that are coming off the bench and some that aren’t even playing now. He is starting to play more people now. I saw Creek came back and played and that’s going to be the challenge, figuring out which guy does what. For the most part, Oladipo is a tough matchup for any team, and yet Hulls does sorta stir the drink bit himself.”
On defense MSU has to key in on their top of mind emphasis on handling the Hoosiers transition. Is transition defense the key? Izzo addressed it, “”I think that and fouling might be the two biggest things. They get to the free throw line about 28 times a game and you can’t defend that. And transition defense will either be off turnovers or they are very, very good in transition. Oladipo might be the best in the country in transition, so that is gonna be a big, big part and we’ve worked on it hard and will work on it harder tomorrow and harder the next day, but if you don’t turn over I think you can somewhat handle it. If you turn the ball over then you can’t practice that. So that is gonna be a big part of the game, that and not fouling.”
Two big losses have come the way of the Hoosiers this year. A glutton for watching hours of tape, Izzo can learn from both games.
After beating the Badgers in Madison, can he take anything away from watching their film of winning in Bloomington? ““You know, Wisconsin didn’t let them get a lot of breakaway layups, that was one thing. Wisconsin made some incredible shots, one falling on their butt, one from 40 feet out. But I thought Wisconsin did a good job making Indiana beat them with jump shots and didn’t get a lot of transition baskets. They did get to the free throw line but not an outrageous number. So yeah, there’s some things you can learn, but every team’s different and we’ve just got to make sure we play our ball without giving up those two key areas we talked about earlier.”
Mid Major Butler coached by one of the best in the nation in Brad Stevens also upset the Hoosiers inside Assembly Hall. Izzo took lots of notes on their win. “It was a very physical game, just like Butler plays. But I thought Butler cut out pretty well, especially Oladipo. And I thought the transition defense was pretty good. They shot OK, it wasn’t like they just shot the lights out. I thought they just played them real solid, I think that’s what you’ve got to do against a team that has played a lot of players. And they’ve got players coming in. I mean, the only freshman they’re playing of any significant amount is the McDonald’s kid, like ours in Harris. All the other guys have been there through the wars, they’ve been there through the DEEDS? and so they’re well-seasoned. He’s got a nice group, a nice mix. Another guy that is a key is Watford. I mean, he’s been a little up and down and when he’s good – what did he average against us last year, 100 or shortly thereof? – that makes a big difference in their team, too. Because Zeller is gonna get some of his but you’ve just try to make him get them in the post, not on the break.”
Izzo loves to run, but will he look to change the pace today? “I don’t know, you know. I guess probably on their court you would but we’re not gonna try to slow it down by any means. I think it’ll be very important that Keith does a good job figuring out when we have something and when we don’t and when we’ve gotta execute. But they come at you a little harder defensively than they used to. I think they’re pressuring more, they’re up in your face a little bit more and with their numbers they can do that. So we’re gonna have to be smart, but we’re not gonna slow it down.”
The biggest factor in this game might just be the Spartan bench. When pressed Izzo admitted that the bench may just be the key to a Spartan upset win. “I’d say that’s a definite. We do have to get more minutes. We’ll get Denzel (Valentine) back and those two bigs are gonna play and Russ keeps shooting it better and better. I’ll be the one guy that’ll hang with him a little bit here and see, but I think it’s really gonna be important that Denzel and Travis (Trice) get back playing and I think they both will, I really do.”
The season is far from over. A loss doesn’t matter and that is rare. A win would give the Spartans the keys to a Big Ten title and certainly place them in the driver’s seat. They are playing with “House Money” and that, mixed with the pressure on IU to hold serve, may just be what the Spartans need to get that big win.
This I know, at 1PM today I will be in my seat in Bloomington, for what could be a season changing moment.