While Michigan State sis at 18-4 (7-2) they have what is another Big Ten battle tonight. With the depth of the Big Ten it is safe to call every game a big one. The Spartans have a chance to make something special this season, but one misstep can cost them dearly.
The Spartans fell on December 31 up in Minneapolis at the barn by a score of 76-63. Izzo reflected back on that loss prior to tonight’s tilt, “I look back at the Minnesota game up there; I look at us as a lot different team that played. If you remember that game we were up five, I just watched it, with nine minutes left. Up three with eight and down one with 2:56 left and then the roof caved in. I thought a couple things were factors. We turned it over and gave them some layups, we went two for ten from the free throw line and missed some front ends of a one and one. The clobbered us on the boards and did a much better job than we did. I think we were at a point, freshman, first game on the road, we just didn’t play that well and they played awfully well.“
Izzo elaborated on the Gophers strengths, “They’ve got balanced scoring. They’ve got five guys scoring almost ten points a game. They went through their slump that I told you everybody or a lot of teams in the league would go through. At one point they lost for out of five I believe and then they have won a couple in a row now. So I think they are back on track. It’s a team that I think is explosive on the offensive glass. I think the best offensive rebounding teams in the league or one of and a very good rebounding team in general. Very physical team with the big guards and I am just hoping we have some bodies to go against it.”
With the Gophers tonight, Purdue on Saturday and UM on Tuesday Izzo said, “So with six games in three days now after lull I guess this is a big week, week and a half or two weeks, I guess I should say to make it easier, this is a big month and that is what it’s going to be.”
Now that the difficult Big Ten season is half over, Izzo knows that there is still a lot of basketball left. “I think enjoy — I always used to remember when Jud and Bobby Knight would get together before a game and Bob would say, ‘Jud, we’ve only got five more left.’ I’d sit there as a young assistant and say ‘Man, these games are the greatest things since sliced bread.’ As you get into it as a head coach, you realize how many you’ve got left and how difficult it is. Right now, I don’t know if it’s any easier or any harder. We’re playing a little better than we were at that time of year but I’m sure they are. You look at what you did in those games, you watch what you did, how you covered some things, how they covered you and then you watch their last couple games to see what they’re doing different. You do your own chess match like everything else and i guess then, you hope the lights don’t turn off.”
I have said many times that Izzo is a glass half empty guy. I asked him earlier this week if the fact that his team hasn’t played their best basketball can turn him to the glass half full side? “That’s very true. It is frustrating and sort of disappointing because you’d like to have a little better pulse of your team but like I said listening to John (Harbaugh) last night, I kind of understood exactly. They were injured, they came on late their last four games. I don’t know where we are compared to the top two teams right now. I don’t know where we are nationally right now. I know that we some have room to grow and I think we can get better. I think key guys can get a lot more consistent which will make us a lot better. If we do that, I think we have a chance to be a very, very good basketball team by the end of the season. You look at our record, you look at who we’ve played, you look at who’s beaten us — you know, we haven’t had any real slip ups. In this league, I’m not sure any loss is going to be one. You talk about non-conference and that and the games we’ve lost have been to pretty good teams. So I’m pleased with a lot of things. I just think we have so much more to give. I think the consistency of some guys. Getting Keith back, it was nice to see him after a very tough game at Indiana bounce back and have one of his best games in his career against Illinois. That says a lot about him and his growth and his maturity so I think we’re definitely making some progress. The half full is we’ve got a lot of progress.”
Although I expect Gary Harris to play today and I don’t think at this point Travis Trice is ruled out, Izzo has an Iron Horse. Keith Appling is that horse and Izzo bragged about how hard he works. “he’s played almost every minute of every game to be honest with you. Keith probably could play 40 minutes a game but we are trying to run and he does usually have to guard the best or second best player on the other team so we don’t hide him at all. Consequently it’s hard to do that. Keith is a phenomenal athlete, especially when you have three games in six days, but I don’t think there’s any leash on anybody. I’m trying to figure out as a lot of teams are, depth is important as you get into the end of the season, as you get into the conference tournament, as you get into the NCAA tournament, depth is important. Just in the conference tournament alone you maybe play three, four days in a row. The end of the year, depending on what you’re schedule is, as is now where we’re Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday. So when you do that you usually need a little more depth, or maybe we do need to slow it down a little bit. Maybe we do have to look at other things we’re gonna do, but right now that’s not in the game plan. If I find out I’m not gonna have two guys for Wednesday I’m gonna change my game plan but I don’t think that’ll happen. If it does I’ll have to adjust on the run.”
When you take away all the ancillary things about this game, it comes down to two friends. Izzo and Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith are close. Izzo doesn’t like playing his great friend. “I do like playing his teams. I don’t like playing against him but I like playing his teams cause I think they’re tougher than nails. When he was at Kentucky we had some wars there, we’ve had some great games since he’s been at Minnesota. He was a great addition to our league cause he’s a class guy, does it the right way. He has been one of my favorite coaches before he was in our league and I think there’s a respect there and I think he respects our program. So you gotta play those guys, that’s just the way it is.”
Izzo lets us in on the mental part of the battle. “Never once did a game end with Tubby where if we won or if we lost I felt any different about him. I think he’s done a very good job with this year’s team. I think they did one of those things that I’m still paranoid of for all of us –They lost at Indiana, I think Michigan beat them at home then they get on a little losing streak and lose a game you think they’d win. I think they were up at Northwestern by 10 in the first half and found a way to lose and then turn right around and get Ohio State somewhere or something. I don’t look at that as making a team bad, I look at it as what he’s bounced back from now, he’s found ways to win a couple games, is who I think Tubby Smith is. He’s a survivor, he’s been on the biggest stage at Kentucky and he did it the right way there and I just respect the heck out of the man and I like this year’s team.”
What does Izzo like about the Gophers? “I think Mbakwe has really improved, both Austin and both those guards are playing really well and Williams is maybe as good an athlete as there is in this league. I think they got some of his mentality cause those guards are awfully strong and tough, they look like linebackers. It’ll be a hell of a game.”
Finally at the halfway point I asked Izzo what is he most happy with and most unhappy with. He told me, “I’m happy with the record. That’s about it. I’m growing happier because I think Appling is getting more and more consistent. Just when I was ready to think Payne was making some progress, he’s been okay. But anything that is ‘okay,’ I’m not happy with. I’m really not enamored with some things. I’m disappointed that our consistency hasn’t been better.”
Izzo would love to start the final push of the Big Ten season with a W tonight at the Breslin. With a 7 PM tip off his Spartans will have a great chance to set the pace for the second half.