For Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans they set their goals on March and banners. His teams always peak late and for good reason: he wants it that way. Well here we are in January and his team is 17-4 (6-2) and they just played a game against a top five opponent that had the feel of the Final Four.
Izzo is never giddy, but he was as close to it as I have seen in the month of January ever. He said of his team, “I liked our competitive attitude, I liked the fact that we’re starting to make some more 3’s, I liked the fact that our inside-outside game for once. We had a couple of inside guys play good, you know, at least one outside guy who played well. If we can get it to two and two, we have a chance to get even better. The schedule doesn’t get any easier and we’ll see how we handle a little bit of adversity but I think we’re definitely making some progress.”
What is Izzo liking? “Dawson and Payne have been much better in the last six or seven games and yet, I think even yesterday with Dawson, because of fouls and things and Keith, playing him at the three. I wanted to play him at the four because of the matchup maybe with Watford but I started moving him around and we were doing some different things defensively and in fairness to him, it was confusing. We missed some switches and things that we wanted to do. That’s the problem for those two guys, they almost gotta guard forward and they gotta guard guards and it’s not easy. So, I think they’ll get better at it.”
But he wasn’t done. Mr. Pessimist couldn’t hide his optimism. He said, “I think the answer is yeah, I think we’ve got a chance to get better but that still could mean more than a couple losses and I don’t say that to think ahead and protect myself. Just looking at this whole thing realistically, I still think this league is very, very, very good and when you never get an off day or many off days, and especially if you’re a team like us, you’ve got to play at a very high level night-in and night-out and that’s going to be the greatest trick. How do we keep everyone at the highest level because we’re not a team that can just go out and beat you any other way.”
Izzo can sense it and he knows the Spartans are improving to a high level right now. “I don’t say thinking we are a little better or a little worse than we are. I will say this. I told you guys the week before; I told my team all week long. We were not a great 17-3 team; we were a good 17-3 team. I thought some consistency was missing. Getting more than one or two guys to play well at the same time was missing. I told my guys after the game that we are a better 17-4 team than we were a 17-3 team. That isn’t because of moral victories or any of that B.S. It is because we did get more guys playing well and we did do some things we wanted to do.”
So with the Spartans peaking, does that mean they don’t have room to improve? Of course they do and Izzo pointed out how. “I think we have a lot of growth left. That is the one thing I’m excited about with our team. I saw some of it in Payne and Nix. I think Dawson has been so much better the last six, seven games and I think he’s got a lot to still give. I think Valentine and Trice, they have a lot they can still give. And I think we could survive very well with Gauna and Costello if we had to in certain situations. So I still think we have a big upside. I mean, as we always laugh about – my teams don’t usually peak early – this year what will happen (the next) seven or eight games I don’t know but I think if we keep getting better we are going to be a better team at the end of the year than we’ve been. And for the most part, I still think in the last month we’ve taken – unfortunately smaller steps than I’d like – but most of them have been forward, not backwards, in any way shape or form and that’s been encouraging.”
The Spartans are far from a finished product. They have a great schedule left. One that I think they can go 8-2 with to finish with a 25-6 record and 14-4 in the Big Ten. If they do that I think they will win the Big Ten and get a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their best basketball is still ahead of them.
I also know that with a team of great talent, minus leaders they could go 3-7 down the stretch. I don’t see it, but it could happen.
For now what matters is that it is still January and for a Spartan team that traditionally rises in March that is scary for the rest of the Big Ten.