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Spartans Biggest Opponent for Big Ten Title is Themselves

You have heard the old tale that you never talk to a pitcher while he is pitching a no hitter. You have also heard that you don’t talk about a title until it is won. Football coaches don’t talk about any other opponent than the next one. Well, no one told Izzo and his Spartans.


The Spartans sit alone atop the Big Ten and their two biggest opponents for that title are Ohio State and Purdue and both teams have three losses each. The Spartans’ closest opponent is Illinois with one loss, but they are not a legitimate threat.


Izzo was blunt about his team. Heading into a Wednesday night game against a team from Iowa that they frankly embarrassed at their home gym just over a week ago would normally be a difficult game to get motivated for. Not now. Izzo has preached, screamed, and cajoled his team to remember last year’s losses to PSU and Northwestern at home.


Izzo has talked about his team being able to deal with distractions and maturity literally from the first press conference of the season. He said, “I think we will learn a lot about the maturity and leadership of this team against Iowa.”


I am not worried about it. Last night at practice this team was loose and intense. They know what rides on this team. They feel the weight of expectations and they embrace them.


Even a media savvy Izzo couldn’t fake concern over his guys. Although warning against them believing all the hype and becoming fat and sassy, he acknowledged that, “Do I think that my team is fat and sassy? No, not at all.” Even he, without saying it, gave them a backhanded compliment.


Don’t get me wrong, I am not ready to anoint them as a sure fire Final Four team as of yet. I am willing to say that this team mentally and maturation wise is far beyond where they were last season.


This team is eerily like the 2008-2009 Tar Heels. They came back and were on a mission. That same mentality is here. Remember back to some comments these players gave me before the season. “We want one thing and only one thing, A Big Ten title and a Final Four. Nothing less than that can make this season a success,” was Kalin Lucas thoughts. Durrell Summers said it even more eloquently, “I think that the only way I can get over the loss (Finals loss to UNC) is to get back. We have to get better fast and realize that the fun comes at the end of the season, not during, and we have to take care of some unfinished business.”


Lastly, I think Delvon Roe may have said it best. He told me standing and talking after a round of golf, “I came here for Final Fours and national championships. We made it last year and only a repeat can make this season a good one.”

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Unlike some past teams where there were some guys that got it and some that didn’t, this team does. You have heard multiple stories about four different guys offering their playing time for another teammate.


You have heard several talented players talk about not caring who starts. He won’t admit it, but I do think Izzo has a big concern. What it is? This team has molded and accepted his message. They aren’t trying to do things on their own. This team, more so than any in recent memory, trusts him implicitly and he has them in the palm of his hand.


Are there areas of concern? Sure. Their ball screen defense has been “Mediocre,” and their slow starts are shocking. Let’s look at both of those. As far as ball screen defense, he has a team that listens and works hard. They are talented so that is easily overcome. The shocking thing people need to remember is that they are still very young.


Lastly, you look at the slow starts. As I noted in my news and notes column, Izzo praised this team’s reliance on intelligence and using their heads more than their incredible talent. He said, when asked what he has learned about his team, “They focus in well on scouting reports.”


Izzo has always had talent. In the past, guys were more reliant on their talent than Izzo and his staff. This group listens to every second, syllable, and note on the scouting reports. They process it all, and at times, come out of the locker room almost thinking too much. That was correct, too much. In the past, the Spartans didn’t listen as much and relied on talent to bring them back. That was the biggest reasons for the PSU and NU losses last season.


This season they trust their coach. They trust the game plans and scouting reports. They will grow into adding the athleticism, which they possess, to the thinking side. When it clicks, the sky will be the limit.


I wrote after the Illinois win that this team had peaked. They have. What people didn’t understand is that peaking against Illinois doesn’t mean that they can’t go higher. It just meant that as of that game they had hit their zenith.


I expect the Spartans to manhandle the Hawkeyes and continue that roll up the mountain. As of now, there isn’t a Big Ten opponent more talented than they are. As I sat in practice yesterday, I laughed with one of my colleagues about how many of the Spartans’ “practice” squad could start on other Big Ten teams. It is astonishing.


For now the Spartans won’t tip off Wednesday against the Hawkeyes. They will tip off against the Spartans. This team isn’t complete. They also are good and that should scare opponents.