Izzo: ‘We have a very athletic region’

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Athletes, athletes, athletes.

That’s what Michigan State coach Tom Izzo sees when he looks around at the other teams in the West Region with the No. 1 seed Spartans.

From No. 2 seed Missouri to No. 3 Marquette to No. 4 Louisville to No. 8 Memphis, Michigan State is likely going to have to deal with these types of tenacious, up-tempo opponents to reach the Final Four.

Even No. 16 seed Long Island, the opening assignment Friday night at Nationwide Arena, likes to push the ball.

“If there is a negative, we have a very athletic region,” Izzo said. “I think our region’s got the most athletic, pressing, running teams.

“There’s teams that run better than we do that are in this group. If we face them, we’re going to have to figure out how to do that.”

Consider some of the facts:

*Long Island ranks third in the nation in scoring with an 81.9 average.

*Memphis, a possible opponent Sunday, gets a combined 13.6 steals and blocks per game, which helps trigger its fast break.

*Louisville, a possible regional semifinal foe, is seventh in the country with 9.1 steals per game.

*Missouri, which MSU could play in a regional final, ranks No. 6 nationally with 80.3 points per game.

*Marquette, which also could be a regional-final opponent, is ninth in steals per game with 8.8 and 30th in scoring at 75.9 a game.

Izzo will have to decide how much he wants his team to press the issue against those teams. The Spartans are without their best athlete, freshman swingman Branden Dawson, who underwent knee surgery last week. Reserve point guard Travis Trice also has been hampered recently by a sprained right ankle.

“I still want to run, but we’ve got to be smart,” Izzo said.

Izzo learned that the hard way in previous NCAA tournament meetings with North Carolina. He lost four times (1998, 2005, 2007 and 2009) to the Tar Heels by an average of 15.5 points.

Izzo admitted he was a little too stubborn in trying to play up-tempo too much of the time against Carolina, which had superior athletes.

“That’s the one mistake that I regret the most,” Izzo said. “Don’t put your hand back on the stove because it’s going to burn.”

It might be a little tempting, though, considering the effectiveness of MSU’s transition game during the Big Ten tournament last weekend.

The Spartans averaged 75 points (up about three points from the regular season) and shot 52.3 percent (up about five percent from the regular season) in three victories, including two against quality defensive teams in Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Sophomore point guard Keith Appling has outstanding speed from one end of the court to the other, but he turned the ball over too much earlier in the season.

“He’s getting to the point where he can push and make decisions when he gets down there,” Izzo said.

At least one Spartan doesn’t expect the plan to change no matter who they run into the next couple weeks.

“I don’t feel anybody runs more or is more athletic or has more speed or quickness than us,” said starting guard Brandon Wood, a fifth-year senior transfer from Valparaiso who has never played in the NCAA tournament. “We wouldn’t change our style of play for anybody regardless.”

Maybe, maybe not.

One advantage that the Spartans have over some other teams in the tournament is that they can play it either way. If they’re not converting in transition, or if they’re not even getting the opportunities to run, they also have a solid inside game to turn to in the half-court offense.

The area where Michigan State could have serious concerns against some of the athletic teams, however, is defending the big guard/small forward types.

That’s where the loss of Dawson (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) might start to be felt.

“The NCAA tournament is all about match-ups,” Izzo said. “With a Branden Dawson, we didn’t have to worry about match-ups because we were versatile enough (defensively) to do a lot of different things. Now we’re pretty much like the old-school teams. We’ve got our perimeter guys, we’ve got our inside guys. We’re maybe missing that one guy that could swing a lot of different ways.”

Another problem down the road could be in handling the ball against pressure defense, which has hurt them many times over the years.  The Spartans average 13 turnovers for the season, but they reduced that to 10 a game in the conference tournament, partly because of Appling’s improved decisions.

Izzo is also going to be depending on two freshmen, Trice and Brandan Kearney, to help Appling with the ballhandling duties, particularly against teams that press.

“He’s going to be a little more valuable, him and (Brandan) Kearney, than people think because of the athleticism and the way people want to run and press that there seems to be in this region,” Izzo said.

Trice, despite not being at full strength, said he’s up for the challenge. A trainer told him this week that he’s just going to have to fight through the pain for as much as three more weeks.

“I can fight through three weeks,” Trice said. “As soon as the ball goes up, as soon as I go in the game, I’ll be ready to play. Everything else goes out the window.”

Despite being the underdog, Long Island, for better or worse, plans to come right at the Spartans with its high-octane approach.

Coach Jim Ferry said the Blackbirds (25-8) want to “put some pressure on those guys” and “try to make them make adjustments to us.”

It’s a good way for Michigan State to start preparing for what lies ahead in this region.

To some, it might seem as if the Spartans are coming into hostile territory for their NCAA opener.

Not to Izzo.

After all, he’s not the one who calls Ohio State simply “Ohio.”

“You have to remember, we’re not in Ann Arbor,” he said. “And we’re not Michigan, we’re Michigan State. We have a decent relationship with the Buckeyes. We’ve had some good wars with them but it’s been, I think, a pretty clean rivalry.

“I went for a little walk today and a lot of those people in that funny looking red were all good to me. I’m pulling for Ohio State in Pittsburgh. So if the Buckeye fans want to wear their red and pull for Michigan State, I’d be happy as hell.”