Uphill battle for Izzo, Spartans to extend tournament streak
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Eron Harris will not score another point for Michigan State this season.
The senior guard, though, did deliver an assist to the Spartans with a tear-jerking speech after finding out his college career was over because of a season-ending knee injury .
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, still emotional a day later, said Harris provided his inspirational perspective at a team meeting Sunday by sharing his thoughts while being taken off the court at Purdue on a stretcher.
“I realized my career is over,'” Izzo recalled Harris saying as the coach fought back more tears. “That was … that was hard.”
It will be really difficult for the Spartans (16-11, 8-6 Big Ten) to extend their Big Ten-record NCAA tournament streak to 20 if they can’t overcome the loss of Harris, who made a team-high 43 3-pointers this season and was just one of three players scoring in double figures.
Michigan State, tied for fifth place in the conference, hosts Nebraska on Thursday night and No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday. The Spartans close the regular season on the road against Illinois and No. 24 Maryland before the Big Ten tournament, where they may need some wins to avoid missing college basketball’s showcase for the first time since 1997 when Izzo was in his second season in charge of the program.
“We only have two weeks left on the regular season and a ton to play for,” Izzo said.
He knew this season would be a struggle before it started.
Izzo was without seven players from last year’s team, including national player of the year Denzel Valentine, in the biggest turnover he’s had since 2001 when he lost as many players off his team that went to a third straight Final Four and won four straight Big Ten titles.
The Spartans, already thin in the post with Deyonta Davis’ decision to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season, took hits when 6-foot-9 seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter needed knee surgeries that relegated them to the sideline this entire season.
Miles Bridges, one of the top freshmen in the country, missed seven games during the middle of the season with an ankle injury. Harris, one of just two healthy seniors, getting knocked out of the lineup just adds to the season-long list of woes that leads Izzo acknowledging this has been his most challenging season .
Senior Alvin Ellis, who started one game as a freshman and one as a sophomore, may step into the lineup to replace Harris. The guard is averaging just 6.6 points, but scored 18 last week in a win over Ohio State and a career-high 20 in the Big Ten-opening win at Minnesota.
“I’m expecting to play a bigger role,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to pick it up for (Harris).”
Izzo has always appeared to be a coach that gets the most out of his players, who rarely are ranked among the nation’s best. He also thinks tough schedules set up his teams to have success in the NCAA tournament. This season, however, a grueling schedule and a string of setbacks before the Big Ten season might end up haunting him if the team’s overall record is not good enough to get into the tournament. And, traveling the team for 13,600 miles over 22 days in November may end up being one of Izzo’s regrets when he looks back at this season.
Michigan State lost to No. 4 Arizona, No. 9 Baylor, No. 11 Kentucky and then-No. 5 Duke along with Northeastern, without Miles, a defeat that looks worse now than it did back in December because the Colonial Athletic Association team has fallen to .500 by losing nine of its last 11 games. The Spartans do have a quality win from their nonconference schedule, beating No. 25 Wichita State.
As the regular season approaches the end with just 10 healthy players on scholarship, Izzo insisted he won’t mention the school’s NCAA streak to his team.
“I haven’t put that pressure on them,” he said. “Don’t plan on putting that pressure on them.”