Spartans Positive Despite Slow Start

“We’re gonna do [sic] like a boxer, and when you get punched in the face and knocked to the canvas, you have two choices, you can get up or you can lay there,” coach Tom Izzo said as he addressed Michigan State’s 0-2 start at practice Thursday with a fitting analogy for a team that just got back from the “Mecca of Boxing,” Madison Square Garden.

The Spartans will host Mississippi Valley State (0-3) for their regular season home opener Friday in the Breslin Center at 7:00 p.m. Izzo mentioned that although they’re not playing another Kentucky or Arizona, he’ll have his team focused for the Delta Devils, but moreso, this game will be important in finding the team’s identity and fixing the glaring issues.

“This is about Michigan State, and this is about what Michigan State hasn’t done so far this year. We’ve played hard enough defensively. We haven’t run hard enough on offense, we have not taken care of the ball well enough,” Izzo said.  “Those two things create a ton of problems. When you have 20 turnovers, you’re giving a team ten more chances to get fouled. And you get more depressed when you turn it over.”

Even after Izzo called Tuesday’s loss to Kentucky an embarrassment to the program, all of the other things MSU has had to overcome through two games need to be understood, starting with the summertime.

“Eron Harris is the only player on this team that practiced the whole summer,” Izzo said.

That is going to have an effect on any team whether it’s for chemistry reasons or just getting the necessary reps to be ready to go for the start of the season. Izzo says this fact is especially true for Matt McQuaid, who is 4-for-15 from the field and 4-for-14 from three.

“Take it as an excuse, I really don’t care how you take it, he (McQuaid) missed six months. Take any shooter in America including Michael Jordan and you miss six months of the summer, it’s not going to be the same. It’s going to take a while to come back,” Izzo said. “And then you’re going against the teams we went against and the travel and all that stuff and it makes it more difficult.”

Even with Harris practicing all summer, his struggles can be explained as well.

“Sometimes when one guy is struggling, there’s two things that happened: when you move from a role player to a main player sometimes that’s a struggle,” Izzo said. “But don’t kid yourself, our lack of screening, our lack of ball movement, our lack of fast break does not put Eron in the same place that he needs to be in, like Bryn (Forbes) was in. So it’s not all Eron’s fault.”

It wouldn’t be fair at this point to say whether Harris can fill in as the go-to guy for 2016-2017. It is similarly not fair to harshly judge the play of the freshmen, who played their first two collegiate games against blue-chip programs.

“We’ve had a two game sample size, most of them (Izzo’s counterparts in the NBA) tell me it takes a year for the game to slow down,” Izzo said referring to the freshmen’s struggles to figure out the tempo at which college basketball is played at. “Hopefully mine will be quicker next. I think I got good enough freshman that can do that. It’s not gonna be in two games or four games or six games, it’s gonna take a while.”

All of MSU’s problems are amplified by the fact that the Spartans have one of the most ruthless schedules in the country. Turning on the panic switch now would be illogical.

“What most teams have done is that they’ve got that breathing room to be average and not get exposed. We don’t do that here,” Izzo said.

Harris isn’t wallowing in the two losses and sees the positives that came of it.

“It humbles us,” Harris said on the past two games. “I can feel these guys are getting used to the game, getting used to the roles. We’re getting in a mode where we know what’s going on and just playing with confidence. Even though it sounds kind of funny with two losses, we’re gaining confidence in our roles because we’re like ‘ok ok, I see what you need, I see what you need me to do here.’”

Even Izzo claims that there were more good than bad in the past two games.

“Defensively right now we’re holding teams to 38 percent. That would have been ahead of last years and we played better people [this year],” Izzo said. “Rebounding wise, we all thought that would be a big problem. We’re out-rebounding both teams, two of the biggest teams we’ll play. Center, we thought that would be a major problem and Nick Ward and Kenny Goins have outperformed their expectations.”

Obviously you can’t win if you can’t score, but rebounding and defense are far more essential to a team’s success. Each national champion since 2010 has been in the top 15 of defense efficiency in the country. It would be far more problematic if MSU was landing its shots, but not doing the other two things well. And they did those two things well, against elite programs. Harris is confident this guard-heavy team will figure its offensive game out.

“Once we get all the pieces to the puzzle right, it’s gonna be something dangerous,” said Harris, who gave recognition to Kyle Ahrens, Alvin Ellis and McQuaid.

As ESPN’s Jay Bilas says, “when you have guards, you have a chance,” a concept that favors the undersized Spartans.

“It will help us as a team confidence wise, knowing that we can stick with anybody in the country,” Ward said, further reminding fans that this team isn’t too phased by the 0-2 start.

MVSU is part of a two game homestand before heading to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis. Harris believes the Delta Devils do enough things well for the Spartans to learn more as a team.

“They move a lot without the ball, they drive the lanes and we just gotta be in helpside,” Harris said. “They have some guys that can get streaky and hot and can be dangerous from outside. Plus you need to stop them in transition.”