Spartans hoping for healthy tourney run
INDIANAPOLIS -- If you like your NCAA tournament with a twist of karma, you have to love the setup for Michigan State.
On the 30th anniversary of their first national title, the Spartans are four victories away from taking a short bus ride east on I-96 for a date with Detroit destiny.
"Playing at home would be great," said leading scorer Kalin Lucas, of nearby Sterling Heights, Mich. "We have to take it one game at a time, but we've thought about it."
If they make it to Ford Field, the Spartans will get there via Minneapolis and then the friendly territory of Indianapolis. They're 5-0 all-time in NCAA tournament games in Indy, including winning the 2000 national title there.
So the stars could not be more aligned.
The more vexing question is whether time and the bracket are aligned against Sparty.
Most coaches would love to trade places with Tom Izzo. His team is 26-6 and carries a No. 2 seed into Midwest Regional play Friday night against Robert Morris. The experienced Spartans guard and board with the very best teams in the nation, and the bench runs as deep as anyone's.
Despite all that, Izzo feels like a guy given 20 minutes to construct a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
He's running out of days to bring his oft-injured, oft-ill team to its peak. Enough key players have limped or coughed their way out of the lineup at various times that even now, on the cusp of the NCAAs, Michigan State remains a work in progress.
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"It's chaotic," Izzo admitted Friday at the Big Ten tournament. "Who am I going to put in? It's kind of a seat-of-the-pants thing. I don't know who I'm going to put in."
Izzo can put in Raymar Morgan, but the junior forward has not been himself since being diagnosed with walking pneumonia/mononucleosis in mid-January. After leading the team in scoring as a sophomore, Morgan has averaged just 5.4 points over the latter half of the season.
Izzo can put in freshman forward Delvon Roe, but the superstar recruit has been battling back from microfracture knee surgery before his senior season of high school. Despite showing flashes of his prodigious potential, Roe is clearly still rediscovering his offensive game. He scored just five points in two Big Ten tourney games and leaves the locker room every day with ice on his left knee.
We've had a hell of a year. I'd like to finish it off by making a deep run in the tournament.” -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo
"I'm about 80 percent," Roe said. "I'm nowhere near the offensive player I was, but I can still help us win."
Izzo can put in Goran Suton, but the senior center's anticipated breakthrough season was compromised when he missed six early games with a knee injury. Suton had dropped his body fat from 20 to 8 percent, but his statistics remain virtually the same as last year.
Combine those frontline health issues with some spotty bench play from shooter Chris Allen (who made 27 of his first 68 3s this season, but just 20 of 75 since) and slasher Durrell Summers (10 of his past 37 from the field), and you see a team that isn't clicking. Given the calendar, you can understand the sense of cohesive urgency.
"I think we're healthy," guard Travis Walton said. "Now it's about finding chemistry."
Substitution rotations that normally would have been set months ago are still subject to change. Practices have been patchwork operations instead of well-oiled routines.
Izzo estimated that about two weeks ago, he was finally able to string together seven straight practices with his best starting five all together and feeling good. That coincided with a five-game winning streak that clinched the Big Ten title.
But it also was followed by an uninspiring 1-1 performance in the conference tournament. After the Spartans were upset by Ohio State in the semifinals, Izzo wondered aloud whether some of the accolades bestowed upon his players --- Lucas was Big Ten Player of the Year, Walton was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- might have softened their focus.
"My job in the next week is going to be to see if we can get our guys back together," he said.
Michigan State will have to be playing better to handle the murderous Midwest Region. Assuming the Spartans beat Robert Morris, everything is dicey thereafter.
After losing out on a No. 1 seed late in the selection process, Michigan State has wandered into the toughest region. The Spartans could be looking at a Sweet Sixteen game against defending national champion Kansas and a regional final against overall No. 1 seed Louisville.
Izzo has few coaching peers, but some of them are right here in his corner of the bracket. There are four other coaches in the region who have taken teams to the Final Four in their careers (Rick Pitino, Bill Self, Thad Matta and Bob Huggins), and two who have won national titles (Pitino and Self).
So the competition will be fierce. Will Michigan State be ready for it?
"I think our best basketball is still to come," Suton said.
"We've had a hell of a year," Izzo said. "I'd like to finish it off by making a deep run in the tournament."
The deeper it goes, the more friendly the confines. Thirty years after Magic, Michigan State has karma on its side.
Whether it has comparable health, chemistry and talent remains to be seen.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.