- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Tom Izzo walked through the tunnel exiting UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 21, his Michigan State squad having just lost to another big-name team. Waiting for him was his daughter, who was standing next to his wife, Lupe.
As he approached his biggest fans, Raquel's eyes welled with tears. Usually, she lets the Spartans' wins and losses roll off her back. But this one hurt.
"She told me, 'Now you're going to have a rotten Christmas, and so are we,' " Izzo said of his 9-year old daughter. "That was the dagger. And I told her, 'No, that won't be the case.' "
Izzo's optimism has carried over from his family to his team. Regardless of Michigan State's .500 non-conference record, its oh-fer against Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky and UCLA, or MSU's latest injury/illness to reserves Delco Rowley and Justin Ockerman, Izzo is confident his Spartans will be in the battle for another Big Ten title and beyond.
"We are getting better," Izzo says, once again seemingly unconcerned with Saturday's eventual outcome at defending national champion Syracuse. Win or lose, a possible sub-.500 record entering conference play or not, his thinking will not be altered.
Michigan State didn't duck anyone on its schedule. And, entering Saturday's game, the Spartans didn't beat anyone of note, either. But Izzo isn't going to apologize for playing the best schedule in the country.
"I'm not backing down," Izzo said. "If we had played a little tougher and better defense, and rebounded better, we would have won some of those games. Maybe not Duke or Kansas, but we could be 7-3, and that's acceptable with the schedule. We're not checking and rebounding like we have in the past."
The players have their coach's back, as well. To a man, each will say they wanted to play a schedule loaded with marquee matchups, rather than a series of games against Directional U.
"We all would say play this schedule than anything else," said Michigan State guard Chris Hill.
The problems Izzo identifies as fixable would have surfaced regardless of the competition. The only difference is the Spartans' flaws wouldn't have been nearly as glaring if they were 9-1 instead of 5-5. And while Izzo won't harp on who he played over the first six weeks of the season, he will stress timing wasn't exactly in the Spartans' favor.
There wasn't enough time to practice, or get out the early kinks every team has in November and December. And there certainly wasn't time to get a healthy Brandon Cotton, who missed the first seven games with a stress fracture in his foot, into the flow as a reserve point guard.
Still, the issues are pretty clear -- at the point and power forward.
Izzo has been struggling to find consistent frontline players since Erazem Lorbek bolted on him in the spring, deciding to go to Europe instead of returning for his sophomore season. And he is second-guessing his decision to switch Alan Anderson off the point after his big guard directed MSU over the final 14 games, and to last season's Elite Eight appearance.
Lorbek's abrupt decision to declare for the NBA draft, and then ultimately choose Europe once he wasn't going to go in the first round, caught Izzo off guard. Izzo had penciled in Lorbek next to forward Paul Davis. Instead, Izzo essentially has been playing four wings next to Davis when it became clear Rowley, Ockerman, Jason Andreas and Drew Naymick weren't ready to handle major minutes next to Davis.
Davis tried to take on too much responsibility early, and it showed against Duke when he scored just seven points and was overwhelmed by the Blue Devils' big men. But Izzo remains confident that Davis is back on track after scoring 22 points in 27 minutes on 8-of-9 shooting in a 78-72 victory over Coppin State earlier this week.
"But the problems will be there inside because we don't have enough bodies," Izzo said, referring to a knee injury to Rowley that occurred against South Florida and might keep him benched through January. Ockerman, meanwhile, has battled the flu, and according to Izzo, lost 18 pounds. The Spartans' toughest player hasn't practiced throughout the holidays.
So, any quick fix will have to come at the point. The 6-6 Anderson averaged 4.3 assists in four NCAA Tournament games. Izzo moved Anderson back to the point against Coppin State, freeing up Hill to play on the wing where he's more comfortable. Hill made 5 of 8 3-pointers in scoring 18 points.
"The last game changed everything," Hill said. "It made me look better because he can drive and kick out to me for a high-percentage shot. Alan can get the ball inside and create."
Izzo and Anderson sat down to discuss his return to the point, and Izzo told him to get back to doing what he did a year ago. He convinced Anderson that Hill wasn't getting the same kind of shots that he made during the tournament run when he was at the point. Clearly, Cotton (5.3 minutes in three games) isn't ready to handle the position. The Kelvin Torbert experiment at point failed during the brutal December stretch. And no one else could do what Anderson has proven in the past.
So, if the Spartans can settle at the point with Anderson while Cotton becomes more effective, it should at least free Hill up for 3s, and allow Torbert, Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown to slash and post up around the basket. The key, however, remains Davis. The sophomore must become a go-to option inside if the Spartans hope to have a consistent offense.
As for the defense, it's been affected by the lack of fluidness on offense. And the rebounding has to improve. Entering Saturday's game, the Spartans ranked 10th in the Big Ten in a category on which Izzo has built MSU's reputation -- although it may mean four guards trying to rebound around Davis.
"We're not out of the frying pan yet," Izzo said in lieu of not only Saturday, but its Big Ten opener at Wisconsin on Jan. 10. "We haven't lost our goals yet. We won our tournament (over Penn and DePaul) and we can still win the Big Ten championship. This is one of the bigger challenges, but I like the way we have practiced the past six or seven days. This has been a wild season for everybody in the country."
If nothing else, the Spartans will be an interesting test case for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. They may not have wins over NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference games if Penn doesn't win the Ivy League. And, depending on who they beat during the Big Ten, they may not get one in conference play, either.
The selection committee rewards teams for scheduling lesser teams than the gauntlet the Spartans have gone through. But there does come a point when a team must win one or two of these games.
"We can get this together, but we're going to have to mash our way through this," Izzo said. "There are teams that have lost to a lot worse teams than us. But we need to win a tough game and beat someone that is really good to get over the hump."
A win over Syracuse may not make the Spartans the team to beat in the Big Ten, or even worthy of the NCAAs. But it would at least put a smile back on Raquel's face.
Izzo never mentioned Missouri by name, but the Tigers are a good example of what he was talking about when it comes to good teams with bad losses.
The Tigers' loss to Belmont stung, more so than anything else that has occurred during this tornado-like year for Quin Snyder and his staff on and off the court.
"I didn't think I'd be coaching effort," Snyder said.
But, it was lack of effort that ultimately led to Missouri's loss at home to the little Baptist school from Nashville, Tenn.
On the heels of the season's biggest upset, Snyder is determined to change his team's mindset. He wants Missouri to play more "power basketball." The Tigers are quickly gaining a reputation of being "soft" heading into the Big 12 season. To change things, Missouri will lean a lot more on Arthur Johnson and Linas Kleiza inside.
"Going into the year I felt like we could really run," Snyder said. "I still think we could run. But we need to run more set plays and get more screening in our offense. I see our offense affecting our shot selection and our turnovers. We're not putting enough pressure on the offensive end. We've got to play to exhaustion and play so hard so that they have to come out of the game. We need more urgency."
Snyder really got after the Tigers over the holiday. The players went through two-a-days. He also stripped the locker room of anything that said Missouri or their names so that they could "find their identity."
"We practiced in shirts and skins," Snyder said. "We want to get back to playing like everything is on the line."
Snyder also must get VMI transfer Jason Conley to think like a scorer again. Initially, the thinking was that Conley could blend into Missouri's talented and deep rotation and be more of a defender. That was at least his intent, even after scoring 19 points in 21 minutes of his first game against UNC Greensboro. Since his debut, however, he's scored only three points in the last three games.
"He needs to be like he was at VMI," Snyder said of when Conley led the country in scoring as a freshman and averaged 22 points a game as a sophomore.
A common assumption is the arrivals of Conley and Pulley have disrupted the team's chemistry. But Snyder disagrees. He said his two midseason additions, who were allowed to play Dec. 21, fit right in with this team. In fact, this team is almost too happy with each other. Snyder wants there to be a bit more aggression within the team to create more competition for playing time.
Snyder wants his wings to compete for points, which equates to more freedom for Conley, Rickey Paulding and Travon Bryant. He needs Jimmy McKinney to just make better decisions at the point, and must have Randy Pulley be more assertive with the ball as a backup.
He wants this team to take on an attitude, an intensity that has fluctuated. He wants the Tigers to have an edge to them.
"We'll probably shake up the lineup," Snyder said in regards to Saturday's game against Iowa. "A guy like Thomas Gardner hadn't been playing because he hasn't practiced well. But he has lately. AJ can't go through a game where he gets only five shots (against Belmont) so he has to do more, too.
"Before the Memphis game (a loss on the road), I had the staff up to my room and we talked about after a made field goal, running up the floor and running into a play to get more touches for a higher percentage shot. This is the same team that rolled through the Big 12 tournament (before a final loss to Oklahoma). We're not a bunch of underachievers. It's December. We'll get better. I'm just not sure of how quickly."
For now, Missouri is playing on the edge.
What We're Hearing At ...
At Pittsburgh ... First-year head coach Jamie Dixon can't get over the selfless play of his team. The most notable example was after the Pittsburgh tournament. He said Julius Page gave his all-tournament trophy to Mark McCarroll in the locker room after the event. McCarroll scored 13 points in the final game of the tournament, a win over previously undefeated Florida State.
At the Rainbow Classic ... How far has the Rainbow Classic fallen? In 1992-93, the event featured Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan and host Hawaii. Three of the four went on to play in the Final Four. The final this season was Hawaii and Fairfield, won by the Rainbows.
With high school departures ... NBA scouts are preparing for as many as 11 high school seniors to possibly bolt for the NBA instead of going to college. That seems highly unlikely, but they are scouting each of the following with the expectation that it could occur: Dwight Howard (undecided), Josh Smith (Indiana), Shaun Livingston (Duke), Al Jefferson (Arkansas), Glen Davis (LSU), Marvin Williams (North Carolina), Robert Swift (USC), Sebastian Telfair (Louisville), LaMarcus Aldridge (Texas), Malik Hairston (undecided) and Randolph Morris (undecided).
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.
Lost in a brutal non-conference season, Michigan State must find itself before the season is a total loss.