Izzo says Michigan State must play smarter

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It's March, and that can mean only one thing at Michigan State — there is no bigger time of the year.

Michigan State started to show that last weekend at the Big Ten tournament, beating Ohio State and Maryland, then coming close to beating Wisconsin in the title game before falling in overtime.

Tom Izzo said it "would have been one of the better championships, one of the better banners we have hung."

Despite the loss, Izzo believes his team enters its 18th straight NCAA Tournament needing only a few tweaks to possibly have a long run.

"I do think they understand where they're at," Izzo said Monday on the Tim Brando Show. "At Michigan State March is a big time of year and yet we have to play, not any harder than we played and not even any better than the last six or eight games, but maybe just a little smarter."

The "smarter" will be necessary after two key turnovers in the final minutes cost the Spartans against the Badgers.

The focus, however, shifts to Friday's game against No. 10 Georgia in Charlotte, N.C., in the East Regional.

Izzo is familiar with Georgia, having watched more of its games than most because his nephew, Matt Bucklin, is the Bulldogs' operations coordinator.

But he approaches the Tournament preparing for the entire weekend, not just one opponent. If Michigan State, seeded seventh, gets past Georgia, it likely would set up a rematch with No. 2 Virginia. The Spartans beat the top-seeded Cavaliers in the Sweet 16 last year.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines if the Spartans get to that point. The rematch aside, Virginia is coached by Tony Bennett, whose father, Dick Bennett, was the longtime coach at Wisconsin.

And, Virginia plays suffocating defense and isn't that unlike Michigan State.

"I have a lot of respect for Georgia and I know (coach) Mark (Fox) pretty well," Izzo said. "And I've known Tony Bennett for years and had epic battles with his dad. We played them four times the year (2000) we won the national championship and Tony plays a lot like him only with a better offense. … We played them in the Sweet 16 last year and I said then it was the best team we played all year and one of the toughest to beat."

The Bulldogs, however, are the first test.

"I've gotten to know Coach Izzo quite well with Matt here," Fox said. "He's a great coach, he's what's good about the game. There needs to be more coaches like Tom Izzo in the world."

Michigan State heads to Charlotte on Wednesday, and in the meantime, Izzo will build on the fact his team has been tested.

"We're trying to come off a tough loss and it was an interesting game," Izzo said. "We had a hell of a weekend when you really look at it with Ohio State, Maryland and then (Wisconsin). There is no NCAA road that will get much tougher than that. Somehow we're gonna learn from it."