By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – After roaring out to an 18-1 start on the season, No. 9 Michigan State is 2-3 in its last five games. Injuries, returns from injuries, and the accompanying adjustments have caused the Spartans to stumble.
While hosting Big Ten bottom-feeder Northwestern might seem like an ideal opportunity for the Spartans to get back on track, head coach Tom Izzo is wary of the Wildcats.
“I think you look at Northwestern, and you have a team that a couple weeks ago, a month ago, everybody thought was in shambles, and [head coach] Chris [Collins] has done a great job rallying them,” Izzo said. “You can tell the team’s bought into his defensive philosophies. They aren’t good defensively; they’re very good. They’ve shot the ball better in the last couple games, I think in the last four games they’re shooting like 36, 37 percent from 3, so they’re starting to shoot the ball a little bit better, but it’s the defense that has made the difference.
“They take pride in it,” Izzo continued, “they’re playing it hard, and guys are buying in, so this is a team that they lose a heart-breaker to Nebraska or they would have come in with a four-game winning streak. They’ve won, I think, three out of four. That’s exciting.”
In fact, Northwestern (12-12, 5-6 Big Ten) has won four of its last five, including a road game against then-No. 14 Wisconsin.
While Izzo certainly is not rooting for the Wildcats this week, he might cheer them on when they are not playing the Spartans. Former Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was a good friend of his, Izzo said, and Izzo also recalled recruiting current Northwestern coach Chris Collins.
“I pull for Northwestern because I’d like to see them get in the NCAA tournament,” Izzo said. “I pull for them because I respect the university, the way they do things, their football, just everything. I can’t pull for them Thursday, but once I’m done with that game, yeah, you’d like to see somebody do something that it hasn’t been done in the history of their school. I think it would be a benefit for Northwestern, of course, but I think it’d even be good for the whole Big Ten and even for the country, so I hope they do get in sometime soon.”
In the meantime, the Spartans just need a win, which because of rampant injuries seems like a taller order than usual these days despite Final Four-caliber talent.
The most recent subtraction from the team has been point guard Keith Appling, who battled a wrist injury for months before finally being declared out. Michigan State is getting some key players, like forward Adreian Payne, back from injury, but the readjustment to his presence creates problems just like the adjustment to his absence did.
“Adreian goes in there, and it’s great, but it creates issues for everybody else,” Izzo said. “[Travis] Trice is in there, it’s great, but he doesn’t run things the same way… Then I’m moving [Denzel] Valentine to some point … I think what’s hurt is what was one of strengths of this team was our break, and our break is pretty designated on what we do, boy, when [Matt] Costello went out of that game the other day, we had nobody – I mean, Casper must have been running down the middle of that lane because there was nobody.
“AP likes to trail even if he’s the first, but now he doesn’t have the same energy to get there,” Izzo continued. “[Kenny] Kaminski, got to get better at it. [Alex] Gauna hasn’t played in a couple games, and [Gavin] Schilling played two minutes and he was out of the game in one minute with two fouls. Those kind of things hurt everything.”
On the bright side, Izzo expects most of his guys to have fresh legs because of the unwanted rest they have gotten when injuries have sidelined them. Also, Trice has done a better job filling in for Appling, who is averaging 15 points and 5 assists per game, than Izzo had anticipated.
“I’ve been very impressed by the way Travis has played in the last two games – his assists, turnovers, his defense, especially against Wisconsin,” Izzo said. “He’s done a better job than that, he’s probably a better pure shooter, he’s just not as good at getting into the lane and making some of those decisions. Something I talked to him about yesterday, I think he’s got to push it harder on the break, but he too, sometimes playing the point. We started playing those two together, then he was the two man.
“It’s just different, not as comforting, not as comfortable,” Izzo added. “I think he’ll get better this week though. I really do. I think he’s done a better job than I thought he would do. That makes me feel good for this year and next.”