“I thought we played probably 30 good minutes against Michigan,” Tom Izzo said early this week about Sunday’s 79-70 defeat in Ann Arbor. In one of the biggest games between the sibling rivals in recent decades, the air came out of the Spartans in a second half that turned all Maize and Blue. “We played fatigued, and not fresh,” Izzo confirmed in reflection. Now in the middle of their Big Ten “bye” week, the Spartans are taking a much needed break to regroup, refresh, and reset themselves for the madness that is March.
“You’ve gotta practice more to get in shape, and practice less if you’re already fatigued and you’re trying to save yourself for games,” Izzo said about the predicament the Spartans have faced most of the season. It all caught up with them in the final 30-minutes in Ann Arbor. All of the injuries, lost practices, strained resources, etc. Everything fell apart as the Wolverines outscored MSU by 11 in turning a 6-point Spartan halftime deficit into a 5-point victory that wasn’t that close.
Their struggles were not for a lack of urgency or a product of complacency. This team hasn’t shown any of those common concerns to date. If anything, they look like a group that might end up wanting it too bad once they finally get back to full steam ahead. If that happens, they could come unglued down the stretch by trying to do too much individually and thus disrupting the cohesive flow they can produce as a team. Their final results, of course, will be authored over the next month or so. That’s what makes this week so important for this team. They have to come together again as a healthy and hungry bunch.
A tried Adreian Payne made progress in the paint last Sunday against the softer interior Michigan Defense. Though the big man is obviously still getting his game back to “game shape,” his willingness to drop down low with his back to the basket was a bright spot to the difficult finish. “We’ve gotta make sure Payne realizes he’s still a serious threat inside, and doesn’t always leak outside,” Izzo laid out. When he does balance going inside and out, as he did in the double-double performance Sunday, he goes from a very good College player to the category of great.
Payne’s play will be a major factor in how far the Spartans dance into March. They simply need him at his best in order to play their best. This week he should lead the recovery unit back towards regular playing shape as this team circles the wagons for the stretch run. He’s far from the only player that needed a break, of course. Keith Appling’s soft tissue wrist injury appears to be getting better, but will surely benefit from the 6 day break before Illinois comes to Breslin Center Saturday afternoon. Then there’s Branden Dawson, who somewhat mysteriously busted a hand before the first Michigan game, and is needed back on the court as soon as physically possible.
“We have not been very good defensively,” Izzo pointed out. “Dawson was one of our best defenders,” he added while explaining the Spartans’ defense should really improve as the injured return to regular playing condition. But don’t count on that necessarily happening right away. “Sometimes when you bring new guys back that haven’t played for a month, there’s an adjustment period in getting that back.” MSU needs an effective Dawson, hopefully very soon, to make an impact defensively, and to really get after the glass.
“I haven’t had a past decade when I’ve had this many injuries,” Izzo joked about the various ailments that have torn at the Spartans core this season. That’s not to make excuses, but to describe what’s happened to this point. “This is not the norm, this is an exception to the rule.” There have been past MSU seasons marked by very well known injuries, Mateen Cleaves’ stress fracture early in the 2000 National Championship run first comes to mind, but none with this many of these kinds this late in the year. “There’s been a five year period where we haven’t had as many practices missed as we’ve had in one year,” Izzo pointed out in frustration. At some point, that catches up to you. That’s what we saw Sunday afternoon, and what Izzo hopes we don’t see again. “We’re 22-6, not 6-22,” he reminded.
MSU is now a game back of Michigan in the Big Ten race with the Wolverines expected to be heavy favorites in their final regular season games. So a share of a Big Ten title is now very close to out of the question. A Tournament run (forget the B1G exhibition kind) is not. “There’s still some time left to get it straightened out,” Izzo still believes.
As they recoup during the slight break this week has provided, they expect to come out of the storm of injuries a much tougher “out.” “We’re struggling to get through it, we’re going to get through it, and we’re going to get better…I really believe that,” Izzo proclaimed. As they recover and recongeal, there will emerge yet another potential pitfall that knocked the Spartans out of the Big Dance last year, and could easily cause havoc once again. “When we get in foul trouble…it does create some issues for us,” the six-time Final Four Head Coach cautioned. We all should keep an eye on that once the Madness begins.
“I love this team, I love the talent on this team, I love the guys that we’ve got,” Izzo said in rallying fashion to put this team’s current position in perspective. Perhaps this season-storm of injuries hit with thunder first, and the real lightning is still left to come. Assuming Dawson returns and there are no other serious injuries that pop up (as discussed in a past edition of this Report), there may be just enough time for the Spartans to peak for the highlight of this spring in Dallas. “We’ve just gotta find a way to get through it.” Before they think too much about galloping down to Big D though, this week was all about saddling up the horse to run at full speed once again.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- Another sign of the slip and slide going on in College Basketball today is the lineup of announcers CBS has again chosen to guide us on the road to the Final Four. Instead of using only dedicated analysts, they will again hike in Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and other NBA folks who don’t cover or watch this sport much at all. It makes the Big Dance feel more like an afterthought and does nothing but erode the credibility of their coverage. What’s next, David Feherty doing sidelines for CBS’ coverage of the AFC Championship game?
- Speaking of the Izzo Final Four Squads, here’s how I’d rank them at this point:
2000—Dominant talent, but their strength in defense and rebounding was unmatched
2010—When Lucas went down (thanks Nike), they were just finding their talented stride
1999—If not still intimidated by the name “Duke,” they could’ve won that weekend
2001— Such a polished and tough squad with plenty of raw talent to spare. Had Jason Richardson not struggled so badly, they would have had a shot to repeat
2009—A somewhat similar story to the Yankees run to the 2001 World Series, they proved to ultimately be the second best team in the country, making an entire state, if not country, proud
2005—The most improbable run that I’ve come to call the “Revenge Tour,” it featured arguably the biggest weekend in the programs history. But for injury and a stunning run by UNC in the 2nd Half, that Revenge Tour could’ve been completed with a Championship win over Illinois
Don’t like my list? Go ahead and rank your own. It’s fun, but harder than you think.
3. The lead story of the College Basketball season hasn’t been the two “big time” Freshmen, it’s clearly been the tricky whistles that have ruined the game’s flow. As the calendar flips towards March, I’m curious to see if whether the whistles will fall into the background or step further into the forefront of the game.
Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and @JPSpartan