By LARRY LAGE/AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan State coach Tom Izzo often lamented what his team lacked when it won 17 of its first 20 games.
A day after the Spartans lost by five points at Indiana, Izzo was more encouraged than discouraged.
And, he even said the team has a chance to go from good to great.
“That is one thing I would’ve taken out of that game,” Izzo said. “That was a pretty good basketball game to watch. I liked our competitive attitude.
“We had a couple inside guys play good and one outside play well. If we can get it to two and two, we have a chance to get even better.”
The Spartans (17-4, 6-2 Big Ten) stayed at No. 13 in The Associated Press’ poll on Monday. They host Illinois (15-6, 2-5) in their only game during a nine-day stretch.
Izzo give his players a “mental day” on Monday by having them only watch film, plans to give them Friday off and perhaps dedicate a day next week to working on individual skills before preparing to play Minnesota at home on Feb. 6.
“I think this break will be perfect,” he said.
Even though the Fighting Illini have slumped to a ninth-place tie in the Big Ten, Izzo hopes the third-place Spartans realize they are playing a team that was talented enough to beat Ohio State, Gonzaga and Butler – all by double digits.
“We’re in for a dangerous week,” Izzo said.
In the 75-70 loss to the third-ranked Hoosiers, Michigan State post players Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix were dominant at times and freshman guard Gary Harris perhaps played his best game. They helped the Spartans have a shot to win – trailing by two points late in the game – despite leading scorer Keith Appling being on the bench with five fouls and two points.
Payne had 18 points, nine rebounds, blocked a shot and had a steal. Nix scored eight points, made a game-high six assists, grabbed five rebounds and had two steals.
Harris scored 21 points – one short of his season high – and made five 3-pointers while playing sound defensively.
“Gary Harris took a major step again,” Izzo said.
The crowd taunted Harris, the 2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball award winner, and he insisted he didn’t hear the jeering fans.
“I didn’t even notice it to be honest with you,” Harris said. “I just tried to block it out.”
Branden Dawson, who is also from Indiana, contributed 12 points and eight rebounds.
Even thought that was a solid performance from a sophomore less than a year removed from major knee surgery, Izzo said the forward will prove to be one of a few pivotal players this season.
“For us to go from good to great, (Dawson) has to keep taking steps,” Izzo said. “I think Denzel (Valentine) and Travis (Trice) are very important parts. We can’t do it with four or five players.”
Izzo said top-ranked Michigan and Indiana, who are tied for first place in the Big Ten, are definitely better than every other team in the conference.
The Spartans will have two more games left with the rival Wolverines – the first is in two weeks at home – a rematch with the Hoosiers along with a trip to Ohio State during the second half of the Big Ten schedule.
“We do have a chance to get better, but that could still mean a couple losses,” Izzo said. “I don’t say that to protect myself, but I do it realistically because this league is very, very good and you don’t get many off days.”
While Izzo acknowledged being more pleased with his team than he was just a few days ago, he vowed that it’s not because he believes in moral victories.
“It’s because we did get more guys playing well,” he said. “And, we did some things we wanted to do.”
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