Breslin Center

East Lansing, MI

Tom Izzo’s Spartans are feeling the love nationally as they approach the Big Ten tournament. With a stellar 26-5 (13-5) record the Spartans even picked up two first place votes this week as the top team in the land.

But Tom Izzo is wise and understands his 2014 was even picked by the President and all of the pundits to win the title and fell to a #7 seed and eventual national champion in UCONN. You can’t win a title this early in March, but you can do things that set it up.

So when Izzo met with some us yesterday, he wanted to talk about Denzel Valentine assuring the country that his team was headed to post season glory and compare it to Mateen Cleaves doing the same.

“I looked through a lot of things last night, back when Mateen (Cleaves) predicted something (A National Championship) we were pretty good, but we had a team that was almost all back from the year before. Just about every player back and some pretty good additions when you look at Jason Richardson being one of them.”

Izzo wanted to make it clear that this is NOT Mateen’s team. “This year we have a lot of them missing. Tum (LourRawls Nairn) was a starting point guard and (Travis) Trice was the starting two guard and Branden Dawson was the starting four man and Schilling started so it is really a completely different team other than Denzel (Valentine) and we started (Bryn) Forbes off and on last year. I think what everyone is looking at is that we have had a good run winning ten of eleven. It was the 14 team that I thought we had a chance to win the national championship and we lost three or four of our last games that year.”

So does a seed really matter? Izzo addressed that, “We’ve gotten to Final Four’s as a seven seed against the best competition that we’ve played; I’d say 2000 was the best. I am not sure last year wasn’t the best when you think about Georgia in the first game and you think of the second game being against a #2 seed in Virginia and two go through the next two teams we did in Oklahoma and Louisville. That was probably the hardest to get there.”

So what does the Spartan future Hall of Fame coach think about this year? “When I look at this year, it could be harder to get the finals of the conference tournament. You look at us and Maryland and Iowa. We are all one or two in the country at one time. So it’s a bizarre year. It has everybody screwed up from writers to coaches to players to fans. The only thing I know is that we are playing good basketball, but we have not, have not been playing as well defensively the last four games.”

When did Izzo notice his Spartans slacking on D? “I think it started with the first half at Ohio State. The first half we were poor and Penn State we were OK if you don’t look at the score, but at the film and what we had to do. We were very poor the first half at Rutgers, very poor and average the first half of Ohio State. Even the second half.”

Izzo said that his team still has areas they must improve on if they want to join Mateen in giving him a national title. “As far as doing the things that we need to do, What it going to win a tournament for you is your defense and the little things. Are we making our free throws, how are our out of bounds plays, our press break looked like a fire drill the other day. What we are really trying to figure out is if we are going to really go back to the basics today in practice and have like a mini boot camp. We have to get back to addressing the little things, because the little things do matter. Getting up on ball screens we were just a step off on that the other day. We still did a good job, but as my guy Doug Herner says, ‘Making shots cures a lot of evils.” It really does. Making shots makes you look good, but making shots usually doesn’t win you championships. We did a better job the last game with our turnovers, down in the eight, the nine, the 10 range. If we can keep that there I think that is good.”

For Izzo, he knows that the quest for his second title and Michigan State’s third in basketball begins in the Big Ten tournament. Something he is excited about.

“This Big Ten tournament if you look at those top eight teams just about every one of them has been ranked at one time or another. The top eight seeds. Three or four of them have been ranked in the top five. It could be as interesting of a Big Ten championship.”

The Spartans will tip off Friday from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis at 6:30 PM. That game can be seen on BTN. They will be facing either Ohio State or Penn State.

But Izzo isn’t even thinking about PSU or OSU yet. He spent yesterday, today and tomorrow working on the Spartans, “We are just going to try to worry about us, today, tomorrow and partially on Wednesday. When I say us, I mean working on our press breaker so that if we play an Iowa it is better. Get our post defense better so if we play a Purdue it is better. No matter who we play getting our defense of the three better. We let (Marc) Loving just sit out there and bomb threes for a while. I still think the team playing the best right now is Indiana. The most talented is Maryland. I just named off six different teams, but Michigan State is included in that. I don’t think you guys (reporters) have seen a year like this and I know that I haven’t.”