East Lansing, MI
When the #2 Michigan State Spartans tip off tonight in Piscataway, New Jersey vs. Rutgers it is a tale of two records. The powerful Spartans stand on the verge of a NCAA Tournament #1 see with a 24-5 (11-5) record while lowly Rutgers is riding a 16 game losing streak 6-23 (0-16) and winless in the Big Ten Conference. But the tale of the records is meaningless to Tom Izzo.
He said of this contest, “This week everyone knows what we have going is a team that is 0-16 and a team that has been without it’s best player for the last four games and he’s coming back in (Corey) Sanders. They also have (Ibrahima) Diallo who hasn’t played since early, all of the Big Ten season. He’s back and that is another 6’10” body. We are just trying to sell this to our team. If we are going to keep trying to get better every day, we shouldn’t worry about any other thing but us. We need to realize we can’t just turn the switch on in tournament time; Big Ten or whatever.”
Izzo went on to add, “I think they (Rutgers) are going to be hungry for a victory. That would make their season. We do have to remember that a year ago I don’t remember if Wisconsin lost one or two, they were rolling pretty good winning every game they played. All of a sudden they went out there and got beat. That is the way that I am looking at it.”
But Izzo says that the record may not reflect success, but Rutgers has played well in spurts. “They have had some good half’s, but they haven’t finished any. They just played Ohio State to a good game last week, and getting their star back I am sure will be a shot in the arm.”
Tom Izzo is a sure Hall of Famer, and with that success he has accumulated some great wisdom. That is why he is trying turn the focus of this game tonight more into MSU vs. MSU than Rutgers. “I am more concerned with us right now as far as what we do. I am really concerned with getting good balance right now. Eron Harris had some good shots, but we missed some shots so I would like to see him step up. I would like to get a little bit more out of (Gavin) Schilling and Marvin Clark. I thought the game and effort that Matt Costello played with his offense, his defense and his blocked shots, and the same with Deyonta (Davis) is what we need if we are going to make any kind of a run in these next couple of weeks.”
One of the many reasons that Izzo has succeeded is that he doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t falsely motivate or conspire to get his team to play. That is why no matter what he tells his team about Rutgers and their need to not take the game lightly, they all will see the highlights and the terrible record. It is human nature for all of us to see that and mentally put the game in the win column.
So how does Izzo deal with the reality that this team still deserves the respect of a Big Ten foe, but their record and play might not? Izzo took that right on.
“I’m not going to over-talk about that either, to be honest with you. This is why you’ve got to be honest with your players and honest with your media. There’s no secrets. Now there are situations, meaning they lose their best player and he’s not playing against Ohio State, they lose by 10 and that kid’s getting 18 a game or whatever he’s getting, so that’s selling. But it’s going to come down to how we play, too. If they play good and we play good I think we win. I do, and I don’t make any bones about that. If we don’t play good, Wisconsin plays good and they play good, Wisconsin wins by a lot, and they didn’t. So I’m not going to try to sell anybody, I’m going to try to be honest with my players, because that’s what I’ve done a decent job of over my career. I tell them when I think we should beat somebody, I tell them why, and I also add in there ‘This is what’s happened in the past to us or to somebody else. Whether they’re drinking the Kool-Aid depends on those seniors. If they’re taking care of that locker room, that airplane and that hotel, then I say we’re in good shape. If they’re not, I’d say we’re in trouble, but I’m not going to try to…I’m going to point out the goods, I’m going to point out the bads, but I am going to worry about us this week. Are we getting better? Win, lose or draw, that’s what it’s going to come down to now in the big picture. Who knows what will happen with this race. I guess the crack in the door got a little bigger, but it’s still a long shot. It hasn’t been something that worries me or I think about at all. I’ve been really focused on, let’s see if we can get this team better every day and maybe more so than any year I’ve been here. Sometimes I talk about it, I think I’m walking the talk more than I have even in the past.”
While some teams lack mental toughness to approach this game with intensity that a Big Ten tilt coming down the stretch deserves, that isn’t this team. Matt Costello, Bryn Forbes, Denzel Valentine and Colby Wollenman are all super people and all are locked in on a bigger prize. One that Rutgers stands in the way of reaching.
This is going to be a long night for the Scarlett Knights. The MSU Rutgers game tips off at 7PM and you can see that game on BTN.