Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo is a certain Hall of Famer one day, but tonight the pride of Iron Mountain, Michigan goes for his fifth win over Wisconsin in a row. A monumental accomplishment for sure, but big for many other reasons.
Izzo is used to these games against the Badgers late in the year being big and this is no exception. The Spartans need to win to keep their dreams of a Big Ten regular season title alive.
Those are all great accolades, accomplishments and goals, but to do that he needs some key players to step up. How about show up?
This year hasn’t been pretty, but you can’t argue it has been successful. Izzo reflected on the year so far, “I’m kind of excited about the fact that, as I look back over the year so far, we’ve won a lot of close games. We’ve done some things down the stretch that we haven’t done in the last couple games. We did perform down the stretch in a lot of those games.”
Entering the game the Spartans have a three game losing streak, but Izzo thinks that has more to do with ancillary issues than poor play. “I don’t look at the three-game losing streak any differently than I said last week when it was two games. Fortunately, in our conference and with the schedule we’ve got, it all comes down to not when you lose games. The games you lose are the games you lose, whether it’s in the beginning or the end. I think even the NCAA has figured that out by not using the last 10 games like they used to.”
Point guard Keith Appling’s play has been suspect in those three losses, but Izzo thinks he played better than many thought he did against Michigan in their last game out. “Appling did struggle at the end, and we all know that. But I thought he did play better during the game. Not as good as he wants to or I’d like him to. He didn’t shoot as well. But as far as the other things he did, defensively what he did, I thought he was way more in-tune than he was the two games before that.”
Izzo elaborated on how Appling’s play was better against the Wolverines compared to the Indiana and Ohio State losses. “I thought he pushed it a lot more on the break. I thought he did a much better job of you know his defense was pretty good. If you look at that thing, Burke scored a couple points in the half court, but he scored most of his points in the open court and those were off turnovers and most of the time it wasn’t off of his turnovers. It wasn’t where I wanted him to be, but he at least took a step in the right direction and the way he has practiced that step in the right direction when he practiced yesterday I think he will work his way out of it. I really do.”
In talking about Appling’s play it is fair to remind you that it isn’t because of a lack of effort. Far from it, but the frustration is showing on Appling face and play. Izzo acknowledged his frustration.
“I think that part hurts a lot more. The leadership part, he’s not gonna wake up on the morning and be some guy that’s a magpie, that’s not gonna happen. But I think we’ve resided ourselves to the fact that I said for months, ‘I gotta get some rotation,’ then a couple weeks ago I said, ‘You know what, we are what we are,’ and I’ve gotta deal with that part. About three weeks ago I figured the same with our leadership. It’s not gonna get that much better, so there’s a lot of ways you still can win games. That’s the way I’m looking at it. Keith Appling’s got a lot to give yet in the other aspect, as a player. He’s got to start making some shots and if he does, that’s gonna take some pressure off him. He is a very good defender, he is a guy that can get it from point A to point B as fast as a lot of people. I think he’s got a lot to give that he can start giving Thursday night and go right through the tournament. I do have faith in him. We haven’t like the inconsistencies but I do remember having the same conversation last year and people wanting me to move him all over and this and that. He ended up having a pretty good year. A little disappointed in what’s happened but everybody handles pressure differently.”
If you want to point out the poor play of Appling you can ignore that Branden Dawson hasn’t been himself either. Izzo agreed. “Branden has been different from Keith because Branden has been a little up and down. But he hasn’t been where Keith was. Remember we were canonizing Keith a month ago. He was the guy down the stretch, he was making the plays, he was taking the shots from Kansas on, he was making the free throws. So he has been there. I don’t think Branden has been there yet. I mean he has had a 20-point game but he hasn’t been as consistent as Keith was for a while.”
Izzo thinks that fans should back off on Dawson and remember that he suffered a massive knee injury not even a year ago. “I have a lot of disappointments but I think Branden Dawson has maybe one of the biggest upsides for us right now. I just have no problem with his approach. I’m trying to figure out why we are finally getting the practices really good and why we are not translating that into a game. But I feel really good on where he’s at as far as mentally, as far as where he’s at as far as knowing. I have not sense any negatives in his mind. I think he is frustrated, as he has shown some. And we’re frustrated because we know he can give us a big lift. But last week in practice he was as focused and prepared, the day of the shoot-around my staff said he was the best guy in the lay-up line. So he’s coming. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating I’m sure to fans, to me, to the staff but it’s most frustrating to him. And I’ve not been through it like that with an injury like that with a kid like that at that age. So I don’t know what he’s thinking inside. I know he’s still working his tail off. I think he is working harder now than he did three weeks ago. That’s a positive sign. If you can make it through the dog days it’s usually going to make you a better person and a better player. He’s fighting through it. I’m good with that. ”
Derrick Nix is not only a captain, but he is also Izzo’s lone senior. Izzo says that he see the reality of just a few games left in his career has Nix taking notice. ““Well, it’s been interesting. You talk about who I’m worried about – I’m more worried about him. I think reality is setting in, like it does with every senior. The other day, I was surprised because I thought he was kind of unemotional for a big game at this stage. I think that you preach to every freshman, sophomore, junior that you’re gonna be a senior before you know it. Take advantage of every day.”
Izzo has been trying to help him. “A couple times in the last week, and yesterday we got together before practice, and I said we’ve got these two games and it’s gonna mean a lot also for the Big Ten Tournament with seeding and everything in play, all this and that. And he looks up and says, ‘Big Ten Tournament?’ I said, ‘Yeah, it starts next week.’ Honest to God, he got this look on his face like, holy … cow, I guess I can say here. I almost started laughing and pulled him aside after. And he goes, ‘That means it’s almost over.’ And he was so sincere the way he said it, I almost felt bad – I couldn’t laugh about it, I couldn’t cry about it. I just had to sit there and say, ‘I told you, this is what happens.’ I think a lot of guys go through that.
Every young person looks in the mirror one day and realizes they have grown up now. Nix had his epiphany recently. “I think he realized about a week ago, you get to this point in time and say, ‘What am I going to do?’ Up until then, you commit to a college and a school you know what you’re going to do when you finish in eighth grade, guys know what they’re gonna do when they get done. Unless you gotta go back to eighth grade. But everybody goes through this thing. I went through it so I sat down and told him what I went through. Yeah, I’m concerned about it. I think the leadership spot, you’ll take it as a negative when I say we don’t have what I would consider great leadership. It’s not as negative as I’m saying it. It’s just a fact of life. It’s not in the personalities of the guys I got.”
One of Izzo’s frustration this season has been that his team has yet to hit its stride as one unit. “Usually where Keith was making strides for a while and maybe Byrd was making some strides, every guy has done something good. But you got to be one of the better players that’s playing all the time and have your game together to be a good leader too. So if your personality isn’t that and maybe the other things are on your side you become better. If your personality isn’t that and you’re struggling yourself, that’s even harder. I’ve said it and I’ll continue to say it, the chemistry has been great, I got no issues. Got a bunch of guys that get along, they do things together, they’ve been great. Having somebody that will take the bull by the horns in a timeout or on the court when you walk back out. We’re lacking a little bit of that. I just keep asking other coaches, who’s got it? I don’t get a lot of, ‘I got it.’ I get a lot more question marks. We’re coming off one of the best we ever had so I think it compounds the problem.”