It’s Tournament time in Spartan Nation once again, and this team is ready for a fresh start. After a frustrating regular season highlighted by injury and inconsistency, the Spartans are ready to leave all that behind and focus on the opportunities of March. “We’ve changed our identity a few times,” Tom Izzo told us recently about beginning to prepare for Tournament play. Now his team is ready to get their identity back again.
For a team that was dismissed from last year’s Big Dance in a bitter foul-based fashion, it’s safe to say they’ve had this section of the calendar circled for a long time. Now that injuries have healed, their focus has completely zoomed in on the court. What do they need to do for their team to make its best run and leave the regular season troubles far behind? “We’ve got to put the pedal to the metal a little bit,” Izzo said about the shortened ramp period his squad has had to manage.
Usually come late January, Spartan fans start watching the national rankings in hopes that MSU can stay in line to secure no lower than a 2-seed. Sure, that’s a high bar, but this is Michigan St. We know the wide gap between the bracketed path of a 2 and 3 seed. Though there’s not much of a difference whether you’re a 1 or a 2, there’s usually a real drop off 2 and below.
That concern faded away to the background weeks ago now. It doesn’t matter what seed they get. The Spartans attention has been focused on whether they can pull it all together in time to play to their potential. This team, at full strength, can play with any Dance partner they could line up against. So seeding won’t be much of a concern over the next few days. In fact, there’s never been a Tournament under Tom Izzo where the Spartans’ NCAA seed has mattered less.
Make no mistake, nobody in any Tournament wants a piece of a healthy and hungry Michigan St. team. No other team should enter Tournament play with as much angry inspiration as a team that once looked destined for a long run in the National Rankings’ #1 slot. Now that everyone is back, somewhat healthy, and hopefully “coached up,” it’s time to see what this thoroughbred program can due in a tight spot.
Past readers know how little many of us think of the Big Ten (Exhibition) Tournament. In past years, the Spartans’ best interests were to lose early and get back to begin NCAA preparations. This time around it feels different, and everyone knows it. MSU needs this team to play as many games as possible, regardless of the final result. They need game experience to establish a rotation, get comfortable playing with each other again, and to create a new playing rhythm. If you’ve seen any of the recent games as players have rejoined the lineup, you know what we’re talking about. Fans know it, the Coaches know that, and this veteran playing group does as well. It’s a good sign that everyone is pulling in the same direction because no kind of run will be possible with any less a mentality.
The Spartans know they cannot contend for a National Title, let alone a Big Ten Tournament Title, if they play the way they have in the past couple of weeks. Now reunited and freshly rebooted, many expect to see a dramatic transformation out of MSU beginning Friday night. Maybe that’s asking too much-too soon, but progress should be immediately evident. The Spartan team at the start of the Big Ten Disco on Friday will not be the same unit if they can make it through to Sunday.
If things go well from this point, this team may remind us a little of the 2010 Final Four team that got better during the Big Dance. They began to ascend before Kalin Lucas was lost in the opener, but continued to improve by the game until the mysteriously officiated slog with Butler in the Final Four. The current mission is rather simple and clear from here: improve considerably game by game. The talent is there, the motivation most certainly should be there, so now we await the execution.
Offensively you can compare this team to a NASCAR crew reassembling itself a bumpy ride. All the working parts are finally back together, but the garage will need some road testing to tweak and tighten up the ride. With so much disruption during the second half of the regular season, the Spartans’ crew has been working overtime to find efficiency as soon as possible. We’ve seen MSU’s 3-point attack show up well in spots, but it cannot settle in as their primary “go-to” moving forward. If the Spartans fall into a 3-jacking comfort zone, look for Tom Izzo to go ballistic on the sidelines.
The Offense is too talented and versatile to let that happen. In fact, their best 3-point attack may come from working the ball from inside-out. That means Adreian Payne and others will need to be stronger with the ball and sharp in their decision making down low. If an Offense is primarily about timing and rhythm, MSU’s should get better as they play more games and everyone settles back in. The prospects are exciting, but time is short and there is little room for error anymore. “We’ve got to get our best 2 or 3 players going,” Izzo cautioned. Without that, production will surely be limited.
There is no room for error on the Rebounding front. As we’ve discussed all year across Spartan Nation, on Twitter, in person (believe it or not), any beyond, this team has to get stronger on the boards. “We tried to keep (our identity) with our defense and rebounding, but were missing 17 rebounds a game when Dawson and Payne were out,” Izzo explained. Injuries or not, 67th in the country is far from the Spartan Basketball Rebounding standard. It’s hurt everything from the fast break to their defensive production, and can ultimately take them out of Tournament play.
That ranking doesn’t matter anymore, but it creates a legitimate cloud of concern over the coming weeks. MSU must rebound better than it has as recently as the Ohio St. loss last Sunday. If they can’t rebound at a much higher level, it’s impossible to think they can make it down to Big D for the Final Four. “As the level of play goes up, you’ve got to bring you level of toughness with you,” Izzo reminded us. The first place to look for that this weekend is on the glass.
Defensively there’s more of a concern than you might initially think. Many get excited when injured players come back, thinking most about how much better their Offense will look, and how exciting the lob-dunks and other throw downs might look. In reality, the biggest improvement the Spartans need to make from here is on the back end. “When you have consistent play it’s usually because you’re tougher defensively,” Izzo relayed. Look for the D to tighten up inside the half court. As Tournament games become more possession based, the intensity of the Defense should turn up a notch. But watch out for Foul Trouble, it can crash an otherwise perfectly running Tournament bandwagon.
Foul trouble cost the Spartans a date with Louisville in the Regional Final last year. In what should’ve been the best of the Sweet Sixteen last year, MSU and Duke was ruined by officiating. I don’t know about you, but it took some of us the entire summer to get rid of that bitter aftertaste. That’s not to say the Blue Devils only won because of the Spartans’ epidemic of fouls, but to note that the competition was destroyed by the way the game was called. After 40 minutes it appeared the Spartans were probably the better team, but because of the way the game was called, we’ll never know.
It killed the experience for players on both sides and fans across the sport. Hopefully it won’t happen again, but based on the way games have been called all year, watch out! In fact, it’s probably a decent bet that a couple of Dance cards will be cut short by officiating all over again. Don’t think that Duke hasn’t been a victim in the past too. They were fouled out of a Final Four game in 2004 that probably still bothers Coach K today, capping off what was the worst officiated NCAA Tournament in modern history. This sport honestly cannot afford that kind of Zebra-failure this year unless they want Cable TV and the sports world’s second tier to become a permanent home.
The mission is simple for MSU from here: survive, advance, and improve. If they can, there could be an all-time Tournament run left in this group of Spartans. Yet, if they’re fallen too far behind to recover in time, the entire season could quickly fizzle away into an afterthought of what might have been. “There’s enough talent here, there’s enough caring here, there’s enough positive things here to make a run,” Izzo summed up.
They know they’ve got to get tougher. They know they need to play better. Hopefully they’ve gotten plenty angry about what happened last year against Duke, and all that’s happened so far this year. But have they been able to regroup and channel that anger, frustration, and disappointment towards becoming a team that can still achieve the season’s biggest dreams? Stay tuned, we’ll find out in the midst of March Madness.
The Spot Up 3: A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind
- Many Selection Sundays we hear how wide open the NCAA Tournament field looks. This time, it’s probably accurate. I can’t recall a year with less confidence that the Final Four will come from teams ranked inside the Top 10 as Tournament time begins.
- Since the field is so unstable and relatively unproven, experience should ultimately rule the Tournament day. That should give an advantage to the teams used to the bigger stage over the relatively upstart and hot burning teams of the moment. Sorry, dreamers. But I could be proven wrong.
- This Spartan team should be more motivated to advance than the last couple of years, and that’s no slight on those two fine squads. Two years ago the Spartans were bounced from a Final Four run by Branden Dawson’s knee injury. Last year they were kicked out by a group of ridiculous whistles against Duke. If they’re as driven as many of us believe they may be, these Spartans will be heard from loud and clear from this point forward.
Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and @JPSpartan