MSU turns focus to its issues after Rutgers postponment

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — On Monday morning, Michigan State had plenty on its plate.

The Spartans were coming off a frustrating loss at Nebraska on Saturday, one that highlighted the team's season-long struggles with free-throw shooting and foul trouble while seeing a resurgence in a problem with turnovers.

It led to one of Michigan State's most difficult halves of basketball as it trailed at halftime and eventually by 17 before a furious rally fell short.

But just as coach Tom Izzo was figuring ways to combat all of those issues, Mother Nature dealt them another as Tuesday's game at Rutgers was postponed because of a massive winter storm that is hammering the Northeast, including the Rutgers campus in Piscataway, N.J. The game was rescheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Rutgers and will be televised by the Big Ten Network.

Izzo said early on Monday that they had been in contact with the Big Ten office since Sunday night and believed that if they got to New Jersey the game would almost certainly be played. But after moving up its scheduled charter flight out of Lansing at least three hours and juggling practice and class schedules, it was announced the game would be postponed.

"Safety is still first and we said that to the Big Ten," Izzo said. "We'll make do with it. This is a Big Ten game we need to win and that is how we're approaching it."

While the date and time of the game changed, the issues the Spartans are dealing with have not, though they will now have more time to work on them even with a visit from rival Michigan coming on Sunday.

The biggest concern, according to Izzo, is simply putting the ball in the basket.

At one point this year, Michigan State led the nation in 3-point shooting

"You look at what has changed the last two weeks and we're not putting the ball in the hole," Izzo said. "You can run any offense you want but at the end of the day the ball has got to go in the basket. And for a team that was shooting the ball so well … and we had a lot of good shots the last game."

That's been the case the last couple of games but, especially from 3-point range, the Spartans have seen a significant drop. They finished 8-for-23 against Nebraska but were just 2-for-11 at halftime. That performance came after three straight subpar games, including 3-for-17 at Maryland and 4-for-13 against Penn State.

The focus has been on guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine, but both broke out a bit in the second half in the loss to Nebraska.

"This is probably the best 3-point shooting team I've had," Izzo said. "I've never had to go through it and I'm shocked Denzel let it affect the rest of his game but I don't think it will from here on out. He's made more of a commitment and he said to me he can't let it happen. I don't think the shooting woes will get to us because we've still been pretty good defensively."

And 3-pointers aren't the only shots not falling. Michigan State is still last in the Big Ten in free-throw shooting at 63 percent and missed 10 on Saturday.

Izzo joked he wasn't into voodoo while saying everyone has their opinion on fixing the free throws.

"If you put the time in you'll get better and get confidence," Izzo said. "Some guys are mentally weaker than others but practice makes perfect in most things you do."

The issues don't stop there and fouling is a big one. Izzo isn't a fan of how close games are being called these days and said his team is more passive than it has ever been. But foul trouble has been a problem all season and it could lead to Izzo making some changes.

The biggest could be playing some zone, an idea that he has never been fond of but said he could do now just to keep his best players on the court longer. Izzo said he's done it twice this season late in games but most didn't notice it.

"Worked like a charm," he said with a smile.

But he admits, at 13-7 and 4-3 in the conference he must make some changes.

"You may see a little zone," he said. "I might pull guys after one foul or try to play them with two. I have to do something different because it isn't working the way it is."

Just don't expect him to pressure full court like he did late against Nebraska.

"I don't believe in it," Izzo said. "I think if you're behind at the end of a game you have to but I don't think you become a great defensive team if you do that. It's a philosophy I have. A lot of pretty good coaches think the same way, including one that just won 1,000 games (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) thinking the same way."

Even with the issues, Izzo was quick to point out his team still has plenty to play for in a difficult Big Ten.

"We're not perfect but this is a pretty good basketball team," he said. "When we're shooting the ball well we can be a really good basketball team."