WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- A year ago, after his team's stunning first-round NCAA tournament loss to upstart George Mason, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo vowed that changes would be made in his program.
The Spartans had strayed away from one of the basic tenets of the Izzo system; their defense had become suspect, porous even. That, Izzo said in no uncertain terms, wouldn't be tolerated.
It was a different Izzo that took the podium after his team's first-round NCAA game against Marquette on Thursday night. His team's defensive intensity had returned, with a vengeance. Though the Spartans were playing against one of Izzo's best friends in the coaching profession, formed trusted assistant Tom Crean, they showed the Golden Eagles no mercy, smothering them with a defensive intensity the likes of which they hadn't seen all year.
The numbers tell a grim tale: In losing 61-49, Marquette was held to its season-low point total. The Golden Eagles didn't even score until 10 minutes into the first half. By that time, they trailed 14-0. Marquette wouldn't score a two-point basket in the half, during which it shot 31 percent.
Clearly, the changes that Izzo decreed had to happen have happened.
"I didn't think all year we had the defensive mentality you need to win," Izzo said of the 2005-06 season that ended in such bitter disappointment and propelled George Mason on a run to the Final Four. "It wasn't all the players. I think I got soft."
Lest anyone think Izzo enjoys the kind of low-scoring, grind-it-out style the Spartans needed to subdue Marquette, he'd actually like to see his team become more versatile, and up-tempo.
"What I'd like to do is take the offense from my team of a couple of years ago and (combine it) with this year's defense. I don't want to be just a defensive team. I want to run it every time we get it and defend on the other end. Teams that advance in this tournament have to be good on both ends. But having said that, your chances of moving on are better if you can get it done on the defensive end."
On a night when Marquette bottled up Michigan State's leading scorer Drew Neitzel for the most part, Spartan freshman Raymar Morgan showed the rest of the nation what Izzo and his staff have known for a long time. The 6-foot-7 forward is a big-time player. He led MSU in scoring (14) and rebounding (nine) in 35 minutes.
Morgan missed seven games with a stress reaction in his right shin, but has played in the Spartans' last 18 games, improving all the while.
"Raymar Morgan is getting better and better and better," Izzo said. "If he hadn't had that injury and missed six weeks, he could really be one of the top freshmen in the conference."
Actually, Morgan more than made his mark as a rookie, earning a spot on the Big Ten's All-Freshman team. He was third among league freshmen in rebounding and fourth in scoring. More importantly, his progress over the course of the year gave the low-scoring Spartans another badly needed scoring threat. Morgan has averaged around 14 points and five boards in his last nine games.
Last season, some Michigan State fans questioned a decision made in the summer of 2004 by Izzo and his staff to accept a commitment from point guard Travis Walton instead of waiting for Dominic James.
While Walton averaged about 19 minutes and 1.8 points as a freshman, James was voted the Big East Rookie of the Year and was generally regarded as one of the top young point guards in the country.
Thursday night, Izzo's decision to take Walton over James was put to the test in the NCAA tournament, and it ended up looking like a stroke of genius.
When Michigan State signed Walton, it did so with the intention of pairing him with Drew Neitzel, allowing the latter to shift to shooting guard and Walton, a physical 6-2 and 195 pounds, to take on the role of defensive specialist.
Both players put in a good season's work. Neitzel became one of the Big Ten's most feared shooters and a first-team all-conference pick, and Walton is the only Spartan to start all 33 games this year, putting up some very point guard-like numbers in the process. He finished third in the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.21), second in assists and earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Defensive Team.
And what of Walton's anticipated match-up against James? In fairness to James, he did bring some baggage with him to the NCAA tournament?a nasty slump from the three-point line (10 of his last 62, 16.1 percent). Walton did his best to keep James' skid intact and also played his usual solid floor game, contributing five assists and four steals in 35 minutes.
James, meanwhile, was hounded into a 6-for-16 shooting night. Though the ended up making four three-pointers and scored 18 points, his effectiveness was severely limited. Michigan State's game plan was to keep him out of the lane, and for the most part, it worked.
The Spartans may find it tough to advance too much farther in this tournament, given the fact the East Regional's No. 1 seed, North Carolina is next up, but the Spartans are going to be an early favorite to compete for the Big Ten championship a year from now. A freshman- and sophomore-dominated team returns intact, Neitzel will almost certainly be a preseason-All-American pick and Izzo and his staff put together one of the top early recruiting classes in the country, fortifying their backcourt by signed three players -- Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers -- ranked among the top 30 in the country.