The Michigan State men's basketball team currently sits atop the standings in the Big Ten with a 6-1 record after coming off two hard fought, heart palpitating wins against opponents in the upper echelon of the league. The Spartans are 17-3, ranked #11 in the country and the hottest team in the conference.
I met so many wonderful folks this past year in and around my home of Lansing, Michigan. One of these fantastic individuals is your author Nolan Moody, a former Spartan baseball standout and a future lawyer. Nolan bleeds Green and White all over the place and will be contributing to OTE this season. I'm thankful for his optimistic, yet pragmatic thoughts on Spartan basketball. - graham filler
On top of that, their current record stacks up very comparably to Tom Izzo's other successful teams of recent years. In fact, after 20 games, this year's team is a game better than last year's Big Ten regular season and tournament champions (16-4, 5-2). The 2012-13 team also shares an identical record (17-3) with the 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams, both whom finished as Big Ten Conference champions and went to the Final Four.
Yet despite early success, the feeling amongst the Spartan faithful is one of reserved excitement. Many are skeptical and believe this team will not maintain its current pace, likely finishing behind Michigan, Indiana and possibly Ohio State. These doubters tend to point to the Spartans' schedule as the primary reason for concern. With two games against Michigan, two against Indiana and a trip to Ohio State still looming, apprehension is justified.
In addition to the gauntlet that is the Big Ten this year, Michigan State has looked very unimpressive in some of its wins. Just two weeks ago the Spartans narrowly escaped in Iowa. It followed the game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a horrendous shooting performance at home against Nebraska, missing so many open looks that it took until the final minute for MSU to pull away. The Spartans capped off the tough stretch with a single digit victory over the conference doormat, Penn State, still looking for their first B1G win of the season.
However, with each passing victory, confidence in the 2012-13 team continues to grow. And it should. What was initially viewed as an ugly win over Iowa appears as though it may end up looking rather impressive, as the Hawkeyes are now a legitimate bubble team (one of the "first 4 out" in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology). In addition, while the Nebraska and Penn State wins will never be regarded as impressive, they were wins nonetheless. And, more importantly, they were games that helped define who this team is and what direction they are heading.
After Iowa, Coach Izzo made a subtle but important adjustment. He went back to playing Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne together. It was a plan left for dead in December after a tough loss to Miami in Coral Gables. At the time, most agreed the experiment had run its course and Branden Dawson should play primarily at the 4.
Unfortunately, while the switch appeared to temporarily solve the frontcourt issues, the Spartan backcourt continued to struggle shooting, particularly from three-point range. Without the personnel to play different backcourts and look for a shooter, Izzo went back to his big lineup. The domino effect meant fewer minutes for talented freshman guard Denzel Valentine who has struggled from the field as well as with his on-the-ball defense once B1G play started. In turn, Payne's minutes have increased and his production has as well. The move also bumped Branden Dawson back to playing wing.
The impact was instant. Against Nebraska, Dawson, Payne and Nix combined to score 12, 14 and 17 respectively. It was also the only reason the Spartans avoided a major upset that night. Izzo's reinvented plan then showed its truly immense potential during the Penn State game three days later. In the second half alone Payne scored a career-high 20 points and added 7 boards in only 17 minutes. Dawson was also solid with 5 points and 5 rebounds in 14 minutes.
The true test for the big lineup came last Saturday, however, when DeShaun Thomas came to town. It was the first game that Adreian Payne would be required to play primarily on the perimeter. On top of that, he would have to chase the Big Ten's leading scorer around screens all night. Thomas scored a game high 28 points but Payne did a commendable job. He limited Thomas enough to avoid making Izzo double team him. This allowed everyone else to stay on their man, making Thomas the only Buckeye to have any offensive impact and the overall Spartan defense to be highly effective. In fact, Payne's defense was strong enough to all but guarantee his place in the starting 5 for the foreseeable future. In addition, Dawson's move back to the 3 has catapulted him the last two games in to a guy that looks as though he may be one of the best wings in the conference by seasons end. The move also gives MSU an extra rebounder and shot blocker.
With so much size on the court, layups are hard to come by and opponents are forced to shoot over the top the Spartan defense (a very difficult task with talented defenders like Gary Harris and Keith Appling on the perimeter). The last two games marked the two lowest scoring outputs of the season for MSU's offense but it also marked their two most impressive wins (excluding Kansas). No doubt, the defense should get the credit, forcing Ohio State in to 14 turnovers before holding Wisconsin to shooting 29% from the field.
The Spartans are getting it done on the end of the floor that established Michigan State as an elite program over a decade ago. The improved defense also makes it possible to get crucial wins in the short term while waiting for Valentine and Appling to find their stroke. And if the Wisconsin game is an indicator, it appears Appling may be doing just that.
But this move was more significant than just improved play from a few key players. It solidified the team's identity as one that Spartan Nation is very familiar with: toughness and defense. It's a brand of basketball that has a track record of success in East Lansing and one that has begun to comfort the cautious MSU fan not ready to give this team the respect their record appears to warrant.
This is not to suggest Izzo's current squad is without fault. Nor is it to downplay the daunting schedule ahead or that cautious optimism may be all this team has currently deserved. But Coach Izzo has his team steadily improving through the month of January with big time wins that cannot be overlooked. The fan base and media may not be there yet but with each passing game, skeptics are beginning to realize this team has the talent to win the B1G if it continues to perform.
The Spartans play in Bloomington on Sunday, arguably the toughest road game in the conference this year and a place where MSU was destroyed a year ago. Those following the conference know that tough B1G road games are very difficult to win. This game is no different and leaving Assembly Hall at 18-3 would be nothing short of an upset. Make no mistake, however, a win is possible. And a "W" on Sunday may be all that is left to turn cautious optimism about this team's success in to the confident swagger Spartan fans have come to expect after all the championship seasons in Tom Izzo's career.