Spartans will be just fine in the long run
NEW YORK -- Let's take a deep breath and really look at Michigan State.
What did the Spartans do that was so wrong to drop to No. 14 in the polls and create this perception that something is terribly unstable with this team?
Well, they lost by 22 in the opener at Hawaii. OK, fine, but that came, as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Tuesday night, after some extenuating circumstances when cramps took Paul Davis, Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager out of the game in the second half.
And, then, what was so awful about the Spartans' run in the Maui Invitational? They lost by three points in triple overtime to Gonzaga in one of the best regular-season games in recent memory. So, what was so bad about that? The Spartans did squeak by Arizona in overtime for third place, less than 18 hours after the triple-overtime game. They then beat Georgia Tech by two at home and came into Madison Square Garden at 5-2 to face undefeated Boston College.
Why did it seem like the Spartans were going in the opposite direction? Why do we obsess about poll position after the Spartans dropped from a preseason No. 4 to No. 14 in the Associated Press poll based on the Hawaii and Gonzaga losses?
"It was like the sky was falling," Izzo said. "And that's what makes it hard for us when we play a great schedule and then drop a game or two."
Well, if you really step back and digest what the Spartans have done to this point you would see that this team is just fine, albeit flawed like all Final Four contenders. That's why Tuesday's 77-70 win over BC in the headline game of the Jimmy V Classic should be another notch in the Spartans' belt in their quest to get to Indy.
The Spartans struggled at times and trailed at the half. They had a hard time defending BC's flex offense and containing Craig Smith and Jared Dudley at times. But the Spartans clicked once they made some defensive switches and kept running at the BC interior with big bodies such as wide receiver-turned-forward Matt Trannon (who has had only three practices), Marquise Gray and, of course, Davis to go along with Ager (who used his length to disrupt BC center John Oates).
They ran out on their break, pushed out to a 13-point lead and held on for dear life as the just-as-tough Eagles chipped away and cut it to a deuce in the final minute. The decisions weren't always sound, like Brown missing on an errant drive and then committing a frustration foul to exit the game with his fifth during BC's run. Still, the Spartans made free throws (14 of 16 in the second half) and had enough poise to finish off BC. Two of the free throws came from Trannon, who hadn't attempted any to date this season and said after the game that he was nervous.
"We can play a lot better," Izzo said. "We're not there yet and that's the good news."
"This team is better than what you saw without a doubt," Davis said. "We all believe that. We did get a lead and let it slip. Look, we went through a tough time in that tournament [in Maui] but that will pay off."
Izzo is still molding this group. He's got more pieces in the post with Gray, who started, and Trannon getting a feel for the game again. Goran Suton will get more meaningful minutes then the two he had Tuesday. Drew Naymick, who had started every previous game, didn't get off the bench. That's five, with Davis, legit post players.
"We played three top nine teams and we came out 2-1," Izzo said of playing at the time No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 9 Arizona and No. 6 Boston College. "Now we just have to get by Wichita State."
That's no joke. Wichita State just beat Providence at home and can test the Spartans in the Palace of Auburn Hills Saturday.
"And then the schedule is a bit backwards for this team," Izzo said.
What he means but might not say is the schedule does get easier for a team that is still maturing, with games against Cleveland State, Florida International, at UW Green Bay, Tennessee Tech (a trap game since this squad beat Oregon State soundly) and Coppin State before the Big Ten.
As for BC, the Eagles don't get any break by opening the ACC on Sunday at Maryland. The Eagles played their style for stretches, but wilted when the Spartans got on their break. Once again, early polls should be tossed aside. The Eagles aren't truly a top-10 team right now without two key pieces: suspended forwards Sean Williams (likely back Dec. 20) and Akida McLain (back Sunday). As Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe pointed out Tuesday night, the top-10 ranking is based on an invisible man in Williams, a shot blocker whose presence might not be felt until January.
"We showed enough character to get this game back to within two," BC coach Al Skinner said. "But we've got to maintain concentration."
BC, like Michigan State, played in spurts and continues to dig itself holes. This time, Skinner said, the Eagles paid a price.
"We're not talented enough to do that," Skinner said of always getting out of a double-digit deficit. "Everybody talks about our experience with four people back [in the starting lineup] but we're still integrating people and that's why we have fluctuations."
The Spartans have more depth, and had more size, and a better break. BC matched their toughness and tenacity. Still, the Spartans, not the incomplete Eagles at this juncture, have the look of a potential Final Four team. For some reason, there was a perception that the Spartans had slipped in Hawaii, Izzo said. They only did in losing two games, one that could have gone their way a number of times. The Spartans didn't fade. They're still right where they've always been, in the spotlight of the season-long title chase.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.