Pentecost Practice Facility
East Lansing, MI
The #6 Michigan State Spartans may be the best team that Tom Izzo has had since Mateen Cleaves led the men from Sparta to the national title. Sitting at 23-5 (9-5) I can attest that watching this team practice is an amazing thing.
I have said for years that as one of the rare people who sits courtside for their games and courtside for practice, I would much rather watch a Tom Izzo led practice. That may stun some fans, but Spartan practices are the DNA of a Tom Izzo coached team.
Watching it here on this day has been amazing again. While the Spartan are among the nation’s best shooting teams, it feels more like a fraternity party not when they are shooting, but when they are running a defensive drill. Even with player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine who runs to hug teammates and gets those not playing in the drills to clap loudly and cheer. It is contagious. This team loves to defend and that is how a team wins a title.
Some teams learn to play defense. Like visiting in-laws on Christmas, they understand they have to do it but never embrace and love it. This team loves it. Watching them even here in practice you see the energy, passion and will to win the drill fire them up as taking the court with a team wearing Maize and Blue.
The mark of a Tom Izzo led team is a commitment to defense. We have seen him take those teams to Final Fours even with less than stellar offensive fire power. This team has that ability and more importantly that commitment to play defense and unlike some, an arsenal of offensive fire power that makes anyone jealous.
After practice I asked the future Hall of Fame head coach about the amazing defensive intensity here at practice. “It’s great. We had a good practice today until the very end.” He’s never happy and that is a key to his success. That is why when tired and exhausted he demands more. It is after a lengthy practice that mimics the closing moments of a tournament game.
Izzo is a driver. If you think that you can make it from point A to point C, he thinks you can make it to point F. Even when a player dramatically overachieves and surpasses what Izzo thinks he never stops asking for more. He is relentless and to me that is his biggest secret to success. It is also the biggest difficulty for new players to understand.
Travis Trice famously put it this way, “It took me a couple of years to understand not how coach was saying things, but what he was saying. To not so much hear what he was saying, but to understand and comprehend what he was saying.”
The coy Izzo continued talking and did let his appreciation for a team that is so highly rated, offensively sound and playing a team they already blew out 92-65 in Penn State Sunday.
“We are trying to get them to finish the job. Play all forty minutes. Learn from football with what they went through. Play the whole time. If that is a two hour practice give me the entire two hours. Today I have them about an hour an fifty minutes. I am starting to see more every day. We are starting to get a little more out of more guys every day. Considering we didn’t have Gavin (Schilling) today (Out with back spasms, but expected to play Sunday) who is one of our better defenders, that hurt us a little bit at the end. I thought it was a good practice.”
What stands out most to me about Izzo is his ability to get young men to do things that they either don’t want to do, or don’t know how to do. Many of you will remember how Tom Izzo on my TV show laughed years ago when I asked him about getting players to understand, “What they don’t know.”
So many times young recruits who are highly valued and sought after come to a place like and regardless of stars or rankings, have no clue what they don’t know. You might be proficient at elementary school, but no youngster heading to high school the first day comprehends what he is about to learn over the next four years and the same is true in college basketball.
Deyonta Davis came to MSU as one of the most sought after big men in the entire country for the 2015 recruiting class. Humble, quiet and talented DD had no clue about the defensive intensity that Izzo demanded. Early on some ignorantly questioned his being quiet as brooding, but that was never an issue. One of the most liked people on his team the humble Davis is as hungry as anyone. He just didn’t know what he didn’t know.
Watching this practice I was amazed this late in the year to see DD’s best performance yet and his excitement like a six year old on Christmas Day seeing that Santa had come, as his teammates and coaches surrounded him and hugged him for a great effort. Most pleasing to me was the smile flashed as wide as a country mile across the face of the young sta,r not that his team was surrounding him, but that he had done it. He had made the amazing defensive stop and the hug from Izzo and players confirmed it.
Izzo talked about that moment with me, “He’s trying. We are riding DD and Costello (Matt) as everyone in the world knows and there is good reasons as those two guys are good players.”
Spartan Nation doesn’t need a bunch of reasons to get excited about Spartan basketball with March looming on the horizon. What should throw gasoline on that already burning fire is that from my court side seat watching practice, they aren’t in love with just offense. They are in love with the simple things that can equate to wins on a bad shooting night and that passion for the game is what can take them to Izzo’s second national title, eighth Final Four and 19th straight NCAA tournament.
The Spartans tip off with Penn State starts at Noon on Sunday and you can see that game on BTN.