The Spartans have faced plenty of adversity, from injuries to key players such as Adreian Payne and Travis Trice to a brutal Big Ten schedule. But against the odds, the Spartans stand at 17-1 overall and 6-0 in conference play, the best start in program history.
It hasn’t always been pretty, as the Spartans will readily admit. But somehow, the Green and White keep finding ways to win.
Head coach Tom Izzo discussed the state of the program at length following the team’s most recent victory, a 78-62 triumph over Illinois on Saturday.
“It’s really rewarding for our players,” Izzo said. “I always like for our players to leave with something, and I hope it’s a Final Four and a National Championship. But I think with every team, you hope when they leave, something will make people think 20 years from now about this team. That’s incredible considering the teams we’ve played and the start we’ve had. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything for the future, but it’s something I’m going to enjoy with my team tonight.”
In a way, Saturday’s win represented MSU’s season thus far. The process hasn’t been pretty and injuries have prevented the Spartans from playing their game. But Michigan State has still found a way to win.
“I think it was a frustrating game on both sides,” Izzo said. “But we’re winning because we’re checking and we’re rebounding really well. And other than the first five minutes when I think we had six turnovers, I think the rest of the game we had seven and we did a decent job in the second half taking care of the ball. We shot a high percentage because we got some layups on our breaks, I do not think our offense looked very smooth, so many times on the bench I kept saying that, but we’re getting there, we’re making some progress.”
Due to the absence of Adreian Payne, Izzo was forced to use strange lineup combinations. One example is that 6’6 Branden Dawson (usually a forward) was placed at the five, or center, position at one point.
“They were really weird, and that’s why our offense looked really weird at times,” Izzo said. “They’re so tough. [Illinois’ Rayvonte] Rice is so hard to guard, he’s so strong, he’s like LT [LaDainian Tomlinson] back there, he’s a linebacker on the hardwood. So we put Dawson on five just to make it easier to get around those ball screens at different times. I give my assistants credit, they adjusted it and even some of the players did and that was cool, I always enjoy that.”
Luckily for the Spartans, Payne could be slated to begin his road to recovery this week. Results from X-Rays on his foot taken on Friday came back with positive results.
“I don’t look at that stuff anymore because I can’t see anything on there anyways,” Izzo said of the X-Rays. “But they were encouraged by the bone growth, the way it is. I think he’s going to be able to start shooting and this week he’ll start running on the treadmill without putting all of his weight on it. That’s when we’ll really tell because like I said, I think he’s ready to go medically … he now just has to decide if he can live with the pain.”
In the meantime, Payne is providing a positive presence off the court. Izzo is impressed with the veteran’s growth.
“Adreian talks more in that dang huddle than he ever has,” Izzo said. “He argued for three years and now he’s talking, and the scary thing is, I’m listening. He’s had some great points and some good ideas tonight. I see this kid growing and it’s really fun to watch. I think he’s going to be a better player when he comes back.”
In Payne’s absence, a number of Spartans have stepped up. Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine has performed well, notching 16 points and 10 rebounds against the Fighting Illini.
“He played some 4, he played some 3, he played some point,” Izzo said of Valentine. “We moved Denzel all over. I thought Denzel played one of his best games. Going up for a layup, going up with two hands, learning from mistakes, getting 11 rebounds, I thought he did a great job there. Believe it or not, I think he did a pretty good job on Rice. That kid is really hard to cover and I thought defense was the best it’s been, so kudos to Denzel, I thought it was his smoothest [performance], he was into the game. I thought he played very well.”
Sophomore guard Gary Harris shined in MSU’s victory on Saturday, racking up 23 points on just nine shots.
“Harris had a quiet 23,” Izzo said. “He had a great shootaround today, he was great defensively. He’s starting to get back to where he was on both sides.”
Another player who is getting back into the groove is junior guard Travis Trice. The Huber Heights, Ohio native has missed time due to his struggles with injury and illness.
“He was tired. I need Trice, he’s a stabilizer, he was playing so good before he got hurt,” Izzo said. “He was doing a lot of things well. Defensively tonight, he just couldn’t move … He missed nine days of practice, and he’s not a really big body. One time I saw Rice going in on Trice and I closed my eyes. But he’ll get better. He’s working and he’s moving forward, he’s had practices where he’s been going full go. This week will be important. If he’s feeling good tomorrow, we’ll start to get some extra cardio, some extra pool work in so that he can hopefully speed that process up a little.”
While players such as Harris and Valentine received attention after MSU’s grind-it-out win, Izzo quietly moved past Illinois’ Lou Henson into the No. 4 spot on the list all-time of Big Ten coaching wins. In his 19th season in East Lansing, Izzo now has 215 victories.
“I saw Lou before [the game],” Izzo said. “There’s a lot of coaches I’ve heard say, ‘Records are meant to be broken.’ I mean it’s kind of good, but all it means is that I’ve stayed here longer, where some coaches move around, I’ve stayed in the same place, in the same league, in the same school.
“It’s nice, but I think I’m going to call Bob [Knight] and make sure he realizes there’s no worries, no one’s catching him,” Izzo continued. “But Lou was great at halftime, hopefully I’ll see him after here. He looked healthy, he put in a lot of years here. When I first got into this league, it was Henson and Knight and [Gene] Keady and [Mike] Davis and Clem Haskins. God, I was scared to go to the meetings, much less the games. There are some incredible coaches, he’s one of them.”
The Spartan Nation has much to rejoice about after another gritty win. Though the Spartans have not been perfect, they have managed to convert adversity into wins. MSU’s 17-1 start does not guarantee future success, but the Spartans will certainly be stronger for having overcome so many obstacles.