Spartans putting 'devastating loss' behind them
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- No more talk about Division II Grand Valley State.
It's over. Sure, the result is still there for everyone to see, atop the first line of the Michigan State game notes: Nov. 2, Grand Valley St. (Exhib), L, 85-82 (2OT).
For days after this game, you would have thought there needed to be a full-blown workshop on what was wrong with Tom Izzo's program.
"It was a devastating loss," sophomore forward Raymar Morgan said. "It really was. Losing to them, our hopes were that high and it was a competitive game and we lost to them and it brought our spirits down."
Really? An exhibition loss was that devastating?
Well, it obviously had a significant effect. The team that showed up in the CBE Classic semifinals on Monday night was hardly a program in reconstruction mode.
Nope, the team that survived Missouri madness with a 86-83 win to advance for a date with top-ranked UCLA (a winner over Maryland) in the Tuesday final in the new Sprint Arena in Kansas City looked every bit like the one projected as a possible Final Four team.
Missouri has to be one of the hardest teams to prepare for, let alone play, in the country. Izzo tried to simulate the Tigers' trapping, pressing, frenetic style with various combinations of five against eight or even five versus 10, according to the players. Still, you can't truly mimic the style because this Missouri squad is so resilient under coach Mike Anderson. Down 16 points at one point late in the first half, the Tigers flipped a switch and were within a bucket of taking the lead with less than five minutes left in the game.
But this isn't last season's middling Michigan State team that finished 8-8 in the Big Ten, 23-12 overall and had trouble finishing a game.
The Spartans were so erratic in the final minutes of games last season that Izzo instructed his staff to cut a tape -- a very long tape according to Izzo -- that showed every way the Spartans lost close games. He made sure the Spartans soaked up their ineptitude to avoid any relapse this season.
But as Izzo preached about last season's team, this season's Spartans are clearly a different bunch.
Drew Neitzel was as valuable to the Spartans last season as any player was to a team. And, sure, Neitzel is still the first option and makes the big shots -- like a 3-pointer late in the win over Missouri after going scoreless for most of the second half -- and converts his free throws (6-of-6).
But this team doesn't rely on him to do everything. Monday's game was a great primer to show the diversity of this squad.
Say hello to the 6-foot-10 Goran Suton, because if you're in the Big Ten, you'll become very familiar with his ability to convert layups, cut to the basket and make big plays, even against a press.
"Goran is looking to make things happen now," Neitzel said.
Suton simply needed confidence, according to Neitzel. Clearly, Izzo has oodles of confidence in Suton's ability to run the offense and slip to the hoop behind screens. Still, Izzo said Suton was a bit soft in the first half against the Tigers, but the junior toughened up in the second half. Suton finished with 17 points (12 in the second half) and nine rebounds in 34 minutes.
"He's a good player, not a great player," Izzo said. "He can make a shot and he understands the game. He's just not really tough and that's why he goes [up and down]. But he played big down the stretch."
Izzo doesn't have to worry about Morgan playing soft. The 6-7 sophomore got into foul trouble against the Tigers but still finished with 19 points and five rebounds despite four fouls.
If there is one major difference with this Spartans squad compared to last season's, it may be freshman Kalin Lucas. Yes, yet another freshman may be the difference on a potential Final Four team.
The Spartans didn't have a player who could break a full-court press by himself last season. But on Monday, Lucas did it against the Tigers for a critical layup when Missouri had pulled within one point with less than five minutes left. Neitzel said having Lucas on the court will cause matchup problems as a defender decides whether or not to leave Neitzel and chase a driving Lucas.
Lucas gives the Spartans another gear. Neitzel needs the ball in his hands, but Lucas' presence allows the senior to work off the ball, where he can be extremely effective, too, as he sets up for 3-pointers.
Now, after surviving the pressing, frenetic style of the Tigers, the Spartans must completely change their thinking against the more half-court-oriented Bruins, who are missing their own jet in injured playmaker Darren Collison.
"I'm looking forward to this, to see how our team adjusts with one-day prep," Izzo said. "We'll work all night and see what we can do and then dissect it later about what we did or didn't do. This is great for us to play back-to-back."
And for those studying the Spartans, this should give everyone an even better barometer of where this team stands at Thanksgiving.
So now it seems that the hysteria over that Grand Valley State loss, which may have been justified at the time, belonged more in last season than in this one.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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