Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has a little more appreciation for what his team is accomplishing this season because of what he went through just a year ago.
It was a tough season for Izzo and the Spartans. They still made it to the NCAA Tournament for the 14th consecutive year – Izzo’s down season is another man’s career highlight – but there was a lot of agonizing and bickering going on around the Breslin Center.
That team simply wasn’t on the same page. Chris Allen got dismissed from the team before the season. Korie Lucious was dismissed during the season. Kalin Lucas was fighting back from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Durrell Summers never really showed up.
So much talent, such high expectations (No. 2 in the preseason polls).
Not a good feeling for the coach when he can’t bring it all together, but that happens in college basketball. Just ask Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon. His team, No. 10 in the preseason back in November, is 4-12 in the Big East.
“We just didn’t do the things championship teams need to do with our chemistry, camaraderie,” Izzo said, reflecting on last season’s frustration. “We worked pretty hard … but we had distractions.”
This year, totally different mood.
The Spartans are winning because they’re doing all the little things right. They willingly share the ball to find the best shot possible. They hustle and help each other out on defense. There’s tremendous team chemistry in the locker room.
Three Big Ten teams were ranked in the preseason – Ohio State No. 3, Wisconsin No. 15, Michigan No. 18 – but not Michigan State.
The Spartans, on a seven-game winning streak in February, have grinded their way to the top of the Big Ten and No. 5 in the nation.
Already assured of at least a share of the conference regular-season championship, Michigan State (24-5, 13-3) can clinch the outright title Tuesday night with a victory at No. 18 Indiana.
“Thanks to the leadership of Draymond (Green) and everything else, it’s been a team that has come from unranked to fairly highly ranked,” Izzo said. “We’ve been the most unselfish team that I might have ever coached. That’s kind of fun.
“We’ve had such good leadership and we’ve had such good team chemistry.”
For those reasons, this has become one of Izzo’s most rewarding seasons.
After a 62-34 loss Saturday at Michigan State, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler raved about how the Spartans do things “the right way.”
“You know their team is going to play with so much energy and so much passion,” Sadler said.
No one on this Michigan State team is currently projected as a first-round pick for either the 2012 or the 2013 NBA draft.
There are other teams around the country, even in the conference, with more highly rated players.
But the Spartans are a leading candidate for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – and a threat to reach the Final Four for the seventh time in 14 years – because last year’s animosity has been replaced by this year’s generosity.
“If this team gets known for one thing this year, it’s probably unselfish play,” Izzo said. “Everybody’s made passes to make somebody else better.”
Sometimes the Spartans are unselfish to a fault. Center Derrick Nix had a possible dunk against Nebraska, but he passed it out for an open 3-pointer.
“That’s a nice problem to have,” Izzo said. “Yell at him to shoot, not yell at him not to shoot.”
Izzo said he doesn’t consider the Spartans to be an especially good shooting team, but they lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage in conference games (.479).
That’s because of the passing. They’re making the extra pass to make a good shot even better.
Green played in the Final Four both of his first two years, but he insists that this is the Spartans’ most unselfish and best defensive team during his time.
The defense all starts with tenacious ball-pressure by point guard Keith Appling.
There was concern before the season after Delvon Roe decided to forego his senior year because of chronic knee problems. Roe was the team’s best interior defender.
But this group, which included several newcomers and others with limited experience when the season started, has bought into the Izzo way.
It is getting better every day, up to No. 2 nationally in opponent’s field-goal percentage (.371), behind only Kentucky (.365).
After holding Nebraska to 34 points, Nix said, “We just gritted our teeth.”
“It’s something we love to do,” fifth-year senior Austin Thornton said of the defensive commitment. “It’s a fun thing being a part of this team because these guys love to sit down and defend.
“We do a great job of preparation. Our coaches prepare us better than any team in the country, there’s no doubt about that.”
Tough defense. Dominant rebounding. Unselfish offense. Great team chemistry. A standout senior leader.
No wonder Izzo is feeling so much better than he did a year ago.