New York — Tom Izzo called it a championship day.
And in his pregame speech to his team Saturday night here at the Barclays Center, Michigan State’s basketball coach urged his players to follow the MSU football team’s lead.
“Football did what they did,” he told them. “Let's go finish the job."
It took the top-ranked Spartans a while to get started in Saturday’s championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn. But they finished, all right, led by Keith Appling’s career-high 27 points as they dispatched Oklahoma, 87-76, to win their first regular-season tournament title away from Breslin Center since 1998.
“I’m going to find a way to enjoy it tonight,” Izzo said. “Because we don’t do this a lot. We don’t win enough of them.”
But for Izzo, this clearly was a difficult one to enjoy. And though he admits there were stretches during both games here “where we were damn near great,” there were stretches Saturday where the game was darn close to unwatchable.
Michigan State and Oklahoma slogged through what Izzo politely termed an “ugly” game that featured nearly as many fouls (49) as field goals (54) — another example of what college basketball’s rule changes have wrought.
On the chin
A crackdown on hand-checking and interior defense has been one of the major storylines in the first month of this season. But Saturday night might’ve been the first real taste of it for the Spartans — a combined 66 free-throw attempts in the game. And it left Izzo sounding more than a little bit bitter, though he was quick to blame himself for making his team “too paranoid” about fouling as well.
“It’s not about fouling out,” said Izzo, who was forced to play some odd lineup combinations, thanks in part to early foul trouble for Adreian Payne and Appling. “It’s about how you play after you get your second one, or your third, for sure. You’re gonna play tentative.”
Then again, his whole team played that way to start Saturday’s game, and that had Izzo equally annoyed, if not more so.
“Usually we do the punching,” he said. “But tonight we got punched. Almost KO’d.”
Oklahoma made 10 of its first 12 field goals, led by senior forward Cameron Clark, who hit his first seven shots and had outscored the Spartans by himself midway through the first half.
But Izzo’s team finally shook off the initial flurry — Branden Dawson’s defense and energy helped — and as the Sooners finally started missing, the Spartans finally started running. Much like they had Friday night against Virginia Tech, the Spartans finished the half with a flourish, putting together a 21-2 run to lead by 14 at the break.
Unlike Friday’s game, though, Oklahoma found a way to stay in the game. Lon Kruger’s team used a trapping press early in the second half to spark a run. And a lead that had ballooned to 18 at one point was pared to a 57-53 margin after a six-minute scoring drought for Michigan State. In that stretch the Spartans were 0-for-6 from the field, 0-for-4 from the free-throw line and committed six turnovers.
It didn’t help that Gary Harris was sitting at the end of the bench dealing with leg cramps. But it also hurt that Appling was on the bench with three fouls.
And it was Appling’s return that eventually made the difference, as he scored seven straight points, including an end-to-end drive for a dunk in traffic, to help Michigan State build the lead back to 12. He’d do it again later after the Sooners cut that lead to four with 3:16 left.
At that point, Izzo had a message for his guard.
“He just told me to go get the ball,” Appling said.
Izzo explained it better, though.
“I told Keith at the end there if he takes a jump shot I’ll kill him,” the coach said. “I just wanted him to drive in the lane and get fouled.”
It worked, as Michigan State made just two field goals the rest of the way, but managed to seal the win at the free-throw line.
"It was tough to play the way we wanted because of the way the game was being called," Appling said. "But I feel like we did a good job of adjusting at the end."
They did, sure. But as Izzo noted sarcastically afterward, he's a bit jealous of his football counterpart, Mark Dantonio: "It must be nice to be in a sport where you can have a little contact.”
“What I’m worried about is are we gonna teach ‘Just dribble in and get fouled,’” he said. “Is that good basketball? We had a 2-hour, 32-minute game last night. Is that good for basketball?”
Probably not, though as with most cases of rule changes, coaches and players will adjust over time. Which Izzo says he’s intent on doing.
He may not like it, he said, “But I’m gonna coach it this week.”
“I’m gonna put football pads on again, and not to rebound,” said Izzo, who used his football-style “War Drill” sessions in practice last week and promised more of the same.
Only it’ll be for offensive reasons now, he joked, to work on drawing contact — and whistles — on the way to the hoop.
“Just go in there, fullback dive, three yards and a cloud of dust,” Izzo continued, providing his own gridiron soundtrack. “Bring Bo and Woody back.”
Ready, set … hike? Well, it’s still football season, I guess.