Spartans coach Tom Izzo, center, and Derrick Nix watch the NCAA Tournament selection show on Sunday in East Lansing. (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
East Lansing -- Tom Izzo smiled, probably because he knew the question was coming. But also because Michigan State's coach knows the real questions to come won't be as easy to answer.
There was little suspense Sunday as Izzo and his team watched the NCAA Tournament selection show in the lounge outside their locker room at Breslin Center. Michigan State was among the first teams to learn its immediate destination, and it wasn't unexpected, drawing a No. 3 seed and opening games close to home at The Palace.
But it was that first opponent — No. 14 seed Valparaiso — and the rest of the bracket that might've given Izzo a few flashbacks.
Placed in the Midwest Region, the Spartans get the added bonus of possibly playing in Indianapolis the second weekend. And yes, as he was reminded, his team's championship run in 2000 followed a similar path, with a first-round win over Valparaiso, followed by Midwest Region games at The Palace and then the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Izzo didn't want to look ahead, for obvious reasons. As a coach, he said, "you'd never do that." But as a human being — something college basketball coaches aren't allowed to be — "you can do that," Izzo admitted.
"You just look at the whole thing and you say, 'Here's who you gotta play to get there,' and 'Here's what you gotta do,'" he said.
But here's what he has to do now, even with the stars seemingly aligned for his team. With two favorable matchups looming this week in Auburn Hills — and there's little doubt the MSU coaching staff liked what they saw Sunday on the TV screen — and two potentially brutal challenges (Duke? Louisville?) awaiting in Indianapolis, Izzo has to find a way to get his team to quit worrying about what it isn't and start focusing on what it is.
Of course, Izzo admits even he's not sure what it is some days. He jokingly welcomed phone calls from possible opponents looking for scouting help Sunday night, saying he'd be of little help. ("Who's the key guy to stop?" Izzo asked. "I don't know that and I've coached 'em for 32-33 games.")
But his message to his team was a bit more honest.
"I just told them, 'We've got some work to do,'" said Izzo, whose team lost four of its last seven games, stumbling late in what was a brutal Big Ten stretch run for all. "We've just got to clean up some rough edges, is what we've got to do.
"We've really proven we can play with anybody, and we've won our share of 'em. But the little mistakes win and lose you games at this time of year. And we've got to do enough to make sure that that doesn't happen."
For all their success, Sunday marked just the third time in a dozen years the Spartans earned a top-16 seeding. (They were 11th overall in this field, by the way.) The two previous occasions, MSU made it out of the first weekend, advancing to the title game in 2009 and losing in the Sweet 16 last year. Win a pair this weekend, though, and it'll practically be a home team again — at least in a possible Sweet 16 game with Duke.
"Of course you think about it," said freshman guard Gary Harris, an Indiana native. "But we've got to take care of the first game first. If we don't do that, there is no next game, there is no Indianapolis."
Spartans far from perfect
There is no doubt Michigan State has the talent to make a deep run, with its interior strength and a top-10 defense. But there's also no hiding the Spartans' flaws: They give away too many possessions — don't worry, Memphis gives away even more — and they don't shoot the 3 all that well.
And this time of year, if you're guilty of the former — Michigan State ranks 209th nationally in turnover percentage — it sure helps if you can do the latter, erasing a big deficit with less effort. Izzo's team shoots just 34.4 percent from behind the arc — 137th in the country — and the last eight games is hitting fewer than 30 percent of its 3-point attempts.
It doesn't help, either, that the Spartans' best marksman is playing with a bum shoulder or two. Harris aggravated his left shoulder again at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago this weekend. And while he shrugged off a question about the injury Sunday — "I still feel pretty good right now," he said — his coach honestly couldn't.
"Gary's the one that still worries me," Izzo said. "No question he's not the same there. … I don't think this is a major setback, but I think it's just something he's got to live with and deal with until he gets some rest at the end of the season."
But in March, it's about delaying the inevitable, not instant gratification. So it was only fitting that the first player to sidle up to Izzo after the pairings were announced Sunday was Derrick Nix, the senior captain who has been fretting about what's next a bit too much lately.
"He is an emotional kid," Izzo said. "And I think he's a little nervous about what happens when it ends. I've just got to convince him that the longer it goes, it doesn't end as early."
Sounds simple enough.
But in the NCAA Tournament, where the reality always hits home, nothing's ever as simple as it seems.