Tom Izzo can’t be very happy right now. Sure, his Michigan State Spartans are ranked sixth in the nation and carry an 8-1 record into their final three non-conference games, but today’s 67-63 win over the Oakland Golden Grizzlies left a lot to be desired.
Oakland is 2-9, and the majority of its losses have been blowouts. The Indiana Hoosiers, for one, beat Oakland 81-54 just a few days ago. How were they able to put such a scare into the mighty Spartans, who were No. 1 in the land just a week ago?
For starters, Michigan State played today’s game without star guard Gary Harris as well as big men Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski. Harris is the team’s leading scorer, so his absence was definitely felt. Costello and Kaminski are accessory pieces, though, and their absences shouldn’t have hurt the Spartans enough to force Michigan State to sweat this one out until the very end.
Michigan State needs another big man to compliment Adreian Payne. The Spartans are currently relying heavily on Harris, Payne and Keith Appling, so when Harris went down with an ankle injury it seems only natural that the team would struggle a bit. However, this is the fourth time this season that the Spartans have struggled to put away an inferior opponent — the first sign of trouble came when Michigan State trailed Columbia at halftime in East Lansing — so this game may be indicative of greater issues.
Luckily for Spartans fans, Coach Izzo has a tried-and-true formula for success. Each year the team’s non-conference slate is rife with brand-name opponents, which teaches the team to play hard and exposes players to adversity while simultaneously preparing the team for the rigors of the Big 10 Conference.
During the non-conference season, Izzo consistently laments about how his team isn’t ready for the big time, and that the team doesn’t deserve whatever lofty ranking it receives. He also uses the early going to call a few players out in public, saying they aren’t playing to their potential. He knows how to light a fire under those guys, and by March his squads are playing tenacious defense, rebounding with abandon, and surging through the NCAA Tournament’s first few rounds with ease.
The current senior class has yet to make it to a Final Four, which gives it the dubious distinction of being the only class to not make a trip to the national semifinals. There is plenty of time to right the ship, and there aren’t that many things to worry about. At this point, it is worth wondering whether Michigan State’s upperclassmen are feeling the strain of expectations. The Spartans will be a top-10 team by the end of the season, but right now they are overrated. That’s fine with Coach Izzo.