Thanks to a miracle of modern technology — specifically, ESPN 3, the cable sports network’s online channel — I had the pleasure this evening of watching Michigan State’s men’s basketball team win its home opener by trouncing Texas Southern by a score of 76-41.
The lopsided outcome was predictable against the type of outmanned opponent that every major college team puts on its early season schedule to practice against.
But it was also reassuring. MSU Coach Tom Izzo — continuing a longstanding practice of trying to toughen his team up for the rigors of the Big 10 championship season — had this year’s squad, a very young and inexperienced team by Spartan standards, open with the most brutal schedule of any team in the country.
Last Friday, MSU tipped off the season by playing North Carolina, brandishing a #1 ranking and several players with professional star potential, in a game famously played in a makeshift arena on the deck of an aircraft carrier moored in San Diego. Then the Spartans flew cross-country and, just four days later, played perennial national power Duke at New York City’s Madison Square Garden with Mike Krzyzewski poised to set the career record for career wins by a head coach.
Few coaches with an eye on the Top 25 rankings would set their teams up for a potential 0-2 start to have to build back from, and that happens to be what MSU got, losing to UNC by a score of 67-55 and to Duke by 74-69. But anyone who follows Michigan State basketball knows that, for Tom Izzo, it is all about March (when the postseason tournaments are held) and not November, when the season starts.
The theory is that putting the players through the competitive wringer early in the year seasons them and makes them undaunted when they play the nation’s top teams again in the NCAA tournament.
Sometimes the formula doesn’t work as drawn up: Last year’s team, plagued by issues of team chemistry on and off the court, struggled in the pre-Big 10 schedule, and it turned out to be a harbinger of a subpar season with an overall record of 19-15, a four-way tie for fourth place in the Big 10 with a 9-9 regular season record, and a rare first-round exit from the NCAAs with a loss to UCLA.
But during Izzo’s first 16 seasons at the helm in East Lansing, he has taken MSU to a national championship in 2000, five other appearances in the NCAA Final Four (including in each of the two years prior to last year’s slip-up) and six Big 10 championships. So it is fair to say his methods deserve the benefit of the doubt.
This year’s Michigan State team needs some seasoning. Forward Draymond Green is the only senior in the starting lineup, with Delvon Roe, a fourth-year center and returning starter, forced to quit basketball because of a series of agonizing knee injuries.
Along with Brandon Wood, a senior guard who transferred from Valparaiso, and two rising sophomore stars — center Adreian Payne and guard Keith Appling — the starting squad is rounded out by freshman Branden Dawson, a highly touted high school all-American. Coming off the bench and seeing plenty of playing time are freshman Travis Trice, a shooting point guard who has played his first three games with the confidence and poise of a player who has been in college ball for three years, and Derrick Nix, a junior center showing improvement after struggling with weight and agility issues during his first two seasons in green and white.
This team still has a bit of a learning curve. The Spartans shot poorly against North Carolina and for most of the game against Duke until a late surge that cut a 20-point deficit to five. And even tonight, against overmatched Texas Southern, the team shot a meh 49 percent, although that was brought down by 34 percent shooting from three-point range (the team shot a promising 20 for 33, or 61 percent, inside the arc). Sketchy ballhandling, leading to too many turnovers, is a problem that has to be addressed.
But there are some very positive takeaways from this 1-2 start. This team is playing Izzoball — crashing the boards, chasing after loose balls, and playing all out for 40 minutes, whether they are trailing by double digits as they were against North Carolina and Duke or winning by 30+ as they were against Texas Southern.
Now Michigan State slips into the kind of schedule that most teams use to fatten up their early-season records. Of the 10 games remaining before their Dec. 28 Big 10 opener against Indiana, MSU plays only two teams currently ranked in the top 25, and both of them are in the lower tier: Florida State, which visits East Lansing on Nov. 30, and Gonzaga, which hosts the Spartans in Spokane, Wash., on Dec. 10.
I’ll keep you posted on how this develops. You can count on it.
Meanwhile, we are hardly done with football yet, and I’ll be heading over to The Stretch — a Chicago Spartans sponsor bar located a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field — tomorrow to watch the 11 a.m. central time kickoff of MSU’s home game against Indiana. The Spartans, heavily favored, can clinch the Legends Division title and a place in first-ever Big 10 football championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis with a win over the Hoosiers and a Nebraska loss at Michigan (and yes, hard as it is to write these words, it would be a really good thing for MSU if the Skunk Bears can rouse themselves to win that game).
Meanwhile, it was a sunny but Windy City day by the Lake Shore:
And lest you need another beautiful sunset fix, these are from last night:
In the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown, according to Weather Underground, Chicago O’Hare on Thursday had a high of 36, a low of 24 and no rain on the first day this season that gave a full foretaste of winter. Washington Reagan National had a high of 53, a low of 39 and .01 of an inch of rain. Have to give the point to D.C. for the milder weather, bringing Chicago’s overall lead down a notch to 62-44.