'Unpredictable' MSU seeks fresh start

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Chicago — It's been hard to figure this Michigan State team out — that much is certain.

The Spartans started the season ranked No. 18 in the nation, but that seemed as much of a sure thing as getting Tom Izzo to employ a zone defense.

Michigan State had plenty to prove after reaching the Elite Eight last season before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut. Gone were Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling. Payne and Harris were first-round picks in the NBA draft and Appling had been a three-year starter at point guard.

Entering the season, the Spartans needed to show they could manage without three stars. Throw in the dismissal of Kenny Kaminski in August, and there was plenty of responsibility heaped on the shoulders of three players — Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine — who had been in essentially supporting roles until this season.

Almost predictably, the 2014-15 season was roller coaster for the Spartans. They played tough in early non-conference games against the likes of Duke, Kansas and Notre Dame before struggling to a home loss against Texas Southern.

The first half of conference play saw a pair of one-sided losses, but by the second half, Michigan State was hitting its stride, winning seven of the last 10, but somehow losing at home to Minnesota in that stretch.

"We were unpredictable," Izzo said, echoing the theme.

But headed into the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans feel like they have a chance to start fresh. They're the defending champions, and when they take the court Friday night against Ohio State in the quarterfinals, they'll have one thing on their mind.

"We take it one game at a time, but we want to win championships," Valentine said. "This season has been a roller coaster, but since the end of the season last year, me and Trav and BJ and the rest of the guys from that team have been talking about winning a championship and going to Indy. We're there now and we have to see what we do with it."

Valentine was, of course, referencing the Final Four in Indianapolis. But the conference tournament will come first, and a decent run here could lead to an even better seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

The key for Michigan State is continuing to gain momentum after winning its final two regular-season games.

"It's a reset as far as our record," Trice said. "But as far as what we learned from this year, we don't want to duplicate the mistakes we made early in the year. We want to learn from them and build off the end of the year."

Getting to the end of the year was the real journey for Michigan State. Most believed Wisconsin was the class of the conference — as it proved all season — while the rest of the teams were jumbled.

And while Michigan State opened with a tough loss at home to Maryland, it won in convincing fashion against Indiana and at Iowa. But inconsistency continued from there and the Spartans were blown out at Maryland and were more than 20 behind at Nebraska before losing by two.

"What we were predictable of is we always battled," Izzo said. "We were in every game but two is the way I look at it. But what we were unpredictable on is the home losses, and some of them injuries, foul trouble and free-throw shooting. I don't think anybody predicted that."

The free-throw shooting wasn't just bad, it was the worst in the Big Ten and, at 62.7 percent, it is the worst in Izzo's 20 seasons as Michigan State's head coach. He's sure it has cost the Spartans four or five games this season, including the loss at home to Illinois when they went 7-for-18 and lost by five points.

"You don't have to be 70 percent, you don't have to be 60 percent," he said. "I think there was one game if we would have been 52 percent we would have won. And that's bizarre, because if you think about it, we're the third-best 3-point shooting team in the league. So it doesn't add up. So that makes us unpredictable."

But Michigan State still managed a 20-win season — the 15th in Izzo's career — and will play in its 18th straight NCAA Tournament.

And though the 21-10 overall record and 12-6 mark in the conference isn't far off from what Izzo thought it would be, he understands it hasn't been easy. He just isn't making any apologies for where his team stands heading into the postseason.

"It hasn't been as smooth, to say the least," he said. "We think we're down a little bit, but go look at some of the guys who won national championships, and the next year they didn't make the NIT. We're not down a little bit with that little blip, and the blip is because we couldn't hit a damn free throw. But we would be right there, right there. I give my team credit for that, I give my staff credit for that. I'm sure we're not blowing our own horn.

"Go back a couple years ago there's been a lot of teams that fell off the face of the earth. There's no falling off the face of the earth (for Michigan State).

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Big Ten tournament

Ohio State vs. Michigan State

Tip-off: Approximately 9 p.m. Friday, United Center, Chicago

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: Ohio State 23-9; Michigan State 21-10

Notable: Ohio State defeated Minnesota, 79-73, on Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals. … The Spartans beat Ohio State in their only meeting this season, a 59-56 win at home. … The teams have met five times in the Big Ten tournament with OSU winning three. MSU beat OSU to win the 2012 title but the Buckeyes eliminated the Spartans in the semifinals in 2013.