Spartans of Old, Where Have Ye Gone?

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Spartans of old, where have ye gone?


Tom Izzo has proven he can right this ship and still capture a Big Ten Title.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

Tom Izzo has proven he can right this ship and still capture a Big Ten Title. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

Or should I say, what has happened to the Michigan State basketball team?! This team is ‘off ‘ now in almost every phase of the game, and it is painful thing to watch. If we look at the recently played Purdue game, it gives us good insight into what is happening to this program, and it reveals a microcosm of the problems they have had this year. The first half against Boilermakers (and most of the game) showed us a Spartan team winging it from 3-point land with some ill-advised shots and getting lost on defense. Meanwhile, Purdue was shooting lights out with the Spartans matador token defense having little affect on the Boilermakers.

Anyway, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Tom Izzo has wondered why they haven’t checked anyone in three games and I would say this has gone back to almost three years, if not more. Teams have bombed away with open looks from the perimeter and sometimes they make them and sometimes they don’t. However, let’s be clear, the open looks are there and the Spartan defense is nowhere to be found. I have quotes going that far back from Jay Bilas, and Steve Lavin recently saying the Spartan perimeter defenders lack the ability to close out and limit the space the space between shooter and defender. The on the ball pressure that Izzo made famous under Mateen Cleaves is just not there. It also doesn’t help that one of their better perimeter defenders from last year, Travis Walton is sitting in street clothes as an assistant now, but guess what, the reality is players graduate and someone needs to step up. You can’t go by stats either since they can lie and be skewed. Perimeter defense can look good on paper, but if a player misses a wide open shot, that doesn’t mean you guarded him, and this can kill you against better teams, as MSU is finding out.

Coach Izzo challenged the crowd this week to step up (and they did) when perhaps he should have been focusing on his team. I can’t remember the last time a Spartan team seemed so out of place on the defensive end of the court. Purdue cutters were gliding through the lane for easy layups; an extra pass by the Boilermakers resulted in easy looks from the perimeter. No one boxed out, and Purdue was getting the long rebounds and second chance possessions. Post defense was pitifully absent. It was painful to watch, especially knowing there was a on looking national television audience witnessing this as well.

So it makes you wonder? Did Mateen Cleaves do a better job of making sure guys played defense? Did Izzo have better assistant coaches back then? Has Izzo loss the intensity for the defensive end of play? Or is it confusing to everyone, as when Vince Lombardi once said, “What the heck is going on out there!”

Purdue was smart, with Lucas hobbling, Matt Painter took away the Spartans man option in Draymond Green who played a good floor game but didn’t shoot well. Lucas was admirable with the effort and played 29 minutes, the problem was he still struggled on both ends because of the injury, especially defensively. He gutted out some good drives to the basket to get to the free throw line, but was a liability on the defensive end of the court playing on one and half legs.

Sadly there was no intensity from the Spartan big men until about 12 minutes left in the game when Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe came alive, but it still couldn’t make up for their disappearing act in the first half as the Spartans settled for inexplicable long jump shots.  Yet when they got the opportunity early, both Morgan and Roe missed easy layups and dunks around the basket and seemed to disappear.  To make things worse, Purdue by contrast, was getting easy shots and making them, as the Spartan defensive effort wasn’t there and some people simply didn’t rotate over or got lost on that end. The lack of a defensive post presence is clearly evident. Izzo says he needs better effort from his junior and seniors, and that might be true, but he may need more inside presence that Sherman or Nix could provide.

Or, have Morgan and Roe show up once in awhile, especially early. He may not think the pups are ready and still learning, but they might have to grow up in a hurry, since Roe and Morgan only scored three baskets combined in 53 minutes of action, which does not include the disappearing on the defensive end, especially by Roe.

The good news was MSU clearly got back into this game by attacking the rim and taking the action to Purdue, but by the time they got within three-points, they had expended a lot of energy and had nothing left in the tank. The Spartans didn’t shoot well from the field and the free throw line despite more opportunities. That Spartan National Championship team of 2000 wasn’t a particularly great shooting team either, but what they did bring was lock-down defense and intensity, and they crashed the glass. This team seems to approach defense the way elder Bush approaches broccoli, “I don’t have to like it and I don’t have to do anything with it either.”

On a good note I thought Korie Lucious played well in running the point, much better than at Illinois but he’ll have to get better in getting more guys involved. His shot has disappeared, but his floor game is much improved. I charted everything in this game, and despite the off night shooting by him and Green, those two were the best in terms of floor play. I believe Steve Lavin is correct as well; Lucious and Green played big last year down the stretch and in the tournament and it was those two guys that made the difference in taking them as far as they did. Chris Allen played decent as well in terms of shooting, but every time he hits a 3-pointer, he does something defensively or with handling the ball to offset any positive value. I know Coach Izzo was upset with Durrell Summers after the Illinois game and it showed against Purdue. Summers sat a lot and did not make a shot from the floor. Not sure sitting him is smart when one of your stars is hurting.

Why Isaiah Dahlman is not in these games more is anyone’s guess. I may be alone in this, but he was impressive in the Green and White game and he has looked good in the limited minutes he does get. Perhaps he could play some small forward and as a captain motivate some guys. I mean the guy was a 4th Team All-American in high school and a Mr. Basketball, and he is not seeing the floor. Yet everyone tells me how great he is in practice. It seems to me they could use him on both ends of the court somewhere, even in spot duty so guys can rest. I just don’t get it.  This team needs a guy who can create and shoot, besides, perhaps he is a untapped ‘gamer’. Some tell me he can’t play defense. Well, there are a lot of guys who can’t play defense on this team right now. Find me another excuse.

Also Draymond Green is such a good passer, why not have him in with some of the big men to feed the post and then isolate him down low against smaller players.  He often seems to be in the game with the small lineup and matched against a bigger player down low. I think MSU needs to make use of his passing ability. Certainly getting Lucas back to 100% will still be key as well, he can break down a defense with strong drives to the hoop.

Speaking of the Spartan defense, about thirteen of the 25 Purdue baskets were layups or dunks. Ouch. Which leads to another low-post thought in that another thing hurting this team is the lack of development from Tom Herzog, a great kid, a great student and teammate, but not giving this team the rebounding and blocked shots they had hoped for when he signed an MSU scholarship.  That can’t help either.

 Ironically there were two bright spots in the game, Robbie Hummel didn’t tear it up against MSU, ( the problem was everyone else did). Plus, MSU limited their turnovers, but guarding perimeter shooters and boxing out seem to be a problem still, and slow rotations.  A few weeks ago Izzo chastised his team after getting up by 21-points on an opponent and letting them back in the game. Well, perhaps he should go back to letting them play because he has had three losses and two nail-biting victories since then. The Spartans simply look like they are not having much fun out there lately.

Finally, understand, Tom Izzo can fix this; he is the future Hall-of-Fame coach while I am just a guy on a keyboard giving you a take. What will it take? My opinion is that Izzo has to go to the captains and the players and start REALLY emphasizing defense like they used to. They need to make opposing 3-point shooters move their feet and close out. They need to practice defensive rotations and boxing out. Someone needs to put their arms around Durrell Summers before he withdraws more. I believe Izzo believes Summers needs to be pushed more and perhaps these steps will help. (If Summers recent quotes about accountability and stepping up are to be believed, it will go a long way to making this team better).

They need to take better and more high-percentage shots. They need Green more involved in the passing game. They need to get other guys on the bench (Dahlman, Sherman, Nix, Herzog) a few minutes in the game to build some unity that this team lacks.  The fact is, the passion is not there, the intensity is not there, and the fastest way to build it is with a longer bench, not a shorter one. If they don’t get it back and get it together quickly, not only can you forget about a Big Ten title, but any long run in the NCAA tournament as well.

Give Coach Izzo credit, he is aware of the problems and stated after practice yesterday that some things have to improve. He included the focus of Summers and Ray, transition defense, ball screens, and their lack of aggressiveness. Now if perimeter defense, boxing out, and turnovers gets some attention as well, MSU will really have something.