The dogfight between the Big Ten's elite teams has Tom Izzo ready for non-conference matchups.
By STEVE KORNACKIFS Detroit
Tom Izzo said Saturday, after getting knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament, that he was so tired of playing Big Ten opponents that the Los Angeles Lakers seem like a better scheduling option. He was kidding. We think.
His Michigan State team couldn’t do better than a tie for second in the Big Ten’s regular season, and it didn’t advance past the conference tournament’s semi-finals by virtue of Saturday’s 61-58 loss to Ohio State at the United Center in Chicago.
The Big Ten has four teams in the Top 10, and its championship game on Sunday will feature the No. 10 Buckeyes against No. 22 Wisconsin — which beat No. 3 Indiana for the 12th consecutive time to reach the finals.
“Some of these guys I’ve gone against for 10 years,” Izzo said of his conference coaching counterparts. “You know what each other’s gum is. I look forward to playing anybody else. I’d play the Lakers tomorrow.
“We’ve beat the hell out of all of us, and it will help us at the end.”
The No. 8 Spartans will not hang a banner this year unless they reach the Final Four.
There has been only one time that MSU has played in the Final Four — which it has reached eight times — and did not win either the Big Ten regular season championship, the conference tournament or both. That was 2005, when the Spartans finished second and then lost the conference tourney opener to Iowa.
They will gather at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Breslin Center to learn where they fit in the NCAA Tournament bracket, and the hope is that it will be 82 miles down Interstate-69 and Interstate-75 to The Palace of Auburn Hills. Izzo’s one NCAA championship in six Final Fours came in a Cleveland-Auburn Hills-Indianapolis run.
The Spartans likely will be a No. 2 seed, but could drop to a No. 3. And while there isn’t much difference between the first opponents for No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, the quality does go up a tad for No. 3 seeds.
MSU almost certainly would have been a No. 2 had it beaten the Buckeyes, and could have slipped into a No. 1 seed by winning the tournament. But the Spartans didn’t advance because they couldn’t find an answer for Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who matched his usual defensive brilliance with 20 points.
So, with forward Branden Dawson stepping up to limit Buckeyes leading scorer Deshaun Thomas to 16 points on 6-for-19 shooting, the scrappy point guard proved lethal. Craft had averaged 9.6 points and Thomas 19.7 points.
“(Dawson) did a decent job on Thomas,” said Izzo, whose team won the conference tourney in 2012 by beating OSU in the finals. “He did a great job. But we did not do a good job on Craft and he beat us.”
Craft scored 18 points in the second half, and Keith Appling could not stop him. Craft also had nine assists, four steals and only two turnovers. Craft limited Appling to 3 points when they last met on Feb. 24 in Columbus, but Appling did respond with 16 points on Saturday and was four-for-seven on three-pointers.
Shooting guard Gary Harris, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, had a shoulder pop out again but managed to play 32 minutes. He hit only one of seven shots from the field and finished with 5 points, all in the second half.
“Harris popped another shoulder,” said Izzo. “It was a problem. I need him in there to defend. He’s played with it a lot, and it’s a shame.”
Harris scored 13 points in Friday night’s quarter-final win over Iowa.
Center Derrick Nix played his second-best game after the 25 point-11 rebound effort against Texas in December, scoring 17 with nine rebounds. But he was involved in a pivotal play that cost the Spartans down the stretch.
With 1:27 remaining, he slapped Craft on the shoulder as be broke free to the basket. He was assessed a flagrant foul – which Izzo agreed with — and Craft made one of two free throws. More importantly, the Buckeyes also got the ball back.
Denzel Valentine, the only player to score off the bench for MSU in the tourney, hit a basket with one second left to bring about the final score.
When asked a question about Northwestern coach Bill Carmody being fired on Saturday, Izzo said, “George Perles told me when I was hired, ‘You will be fired; it’s just a matter of when.’” Though, it’s a virtual impossibility that Izzo, 58, will ever get fired at MSU. Perles, now a member of the MSU board of trustees, was both the former athletic director and football coach when Izzo was hired in 1995.