St. Louis, MO
At 2:45 ET today the 29-5 #2 Michigan State Spartans will play #15 24-9 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Today’s game can be seen on CBS. The Spartans are heavily favored not just to win this game, but the tournament in its entirety.
The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee are well coached themselves in 18 year veteran Kermit Davis. He was asked yesterday about playing Cinderella to Tom Izzo’s basketball machine and why Izzo is the master when the calendar switches to March.
“When you watch Tom's team casually during the year, we love to watch his team. But when you really start scouting, it's the first time I've ever played a team that Tom's coached. But you really start scouting them. What makes him so good, and I think him and Bill Self are about as good as any, is they can coach their best player the toughest and nobody blinks. I think when you do it at this level of program, that's why teams just play like they do. And they're so physical. They play unselfish and they play fast. So I think it's just who he is. I think he's just consistent. And I think it just goes back -- and Popovich is probably the best in the NBA at doing it -- but when you can coach your very best players the hardest every day, and that's what he does with every different team, that's why your team in March will play just like his teams play.”
One of Tom Izzo’s strengths as a coach is watching film. He catches every nuance of what a team does well and strives to make them beat him without it. When you put the film on the Blue Raiders they do something that Izzo led teams do as well, they are very unselfish.
They are always moving and sliding to help on defense. That works in Conference USA and even in the Big Ten, but not against a team as loaded as the Spartans. Slide over to stop Denzel Valentine and he can get the ball into Bryn Forbes hands. Double team Forbes and he’ll perfectly distribute the ball to Matt Costello or Deyonta Davis on a slip screen dunk. So in theory can MSU punish the Blue Raider to force them to stop what they do so well?
Izzo told me, “I hope so. You know, I think we both create some problems for each other, and that's kind of what the NCAA Tournament is all about, facing people that are different than the ones you've faced. And you know, they're very good defensively. They're not real big, but they're very athletic, they're very long. And like I said, well coached. I mean, he can coach. Now, I've known that for 20, 30 years. You know, shooters gotta make shots. You can't turn the ball over. You can't get in foul trouble. I mean, it's the same old things. It's like watching the Super Bowl. When they talk about the things you've gotta do there, you can't turn it over, you gotta play good defense. Quarterback's gotta make some plays. Kind of the same in all sports. We're in a baseball city, pitchers don't pitch, hitters don't hit, you go home. That's kind of the way it is.”
But for Izzo his teams always peak in March. That is why people have turned to calling him, “Mr. March” and with 19 straight tournament appearances, seven Final Fours and one national title, he is going to be named to the Hall of Fame in just over two weeks because of that legacy. Why is it that his teams fare so well this time of year?
“Boy, that's a million-dollar question, and you know, I don't think it's me. I think it's the culture that we've built there. I think there's not a pressure, there's an expectation among players when they're playing in the summer and the former guys come back and our pro guys come back, whether it's Magic Johnson or Steve Smith, or whoever come back. People talk about the Final Four. People talk about winning championships. I think there's a culture there and an expectation that wherever you are at the beginning of the year you better get good enough by the end of the year. And I'm telling you, it's not being coached as much as it's being player coached. Denzel and Matt did an incredible job last year after we got beat by Duke at setting the standards. And they worked all spring, summer and fall at it. And I think we're reaping some of the benefits by having a good year.”
He continued, “The problem is, you know, one of the best high school teams in the state of Michigan is in East Lansing and last night and they got upset by a 10-10 team. And one-and-done time is one-and-done. And one bad call, one sprained ankle. One bad shooting night and you know you're going home. And that's the uniqueness, even to the NBA. You know, best of seven would be good right now. I like my chances better. But I think we talk about that from the first day to the last. The "my bads" gotta start going away as the year goes on because when you have a "my bad" in March that means you're going home.”
The Spartans will be facing a poor man’s version of themselves today when the ball tips at 2:45 ET on CBS. The Blue Raiders love to play defense and can shoot. Their bigs like to go to the outside and that will open the way for the Spartans to attack the paint. MSU should move on easily, but Middle Tennessee is well coached and won’t be a walk over.