MSU's early success could foretell bountiful March

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Fullerton, Calif. — If there's a trademark of Tom Izzo-coached teams at Michigan State, it's that he has his teams ready for March, not necessarily November.

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine passes the ball as Boston College guard Sammy Barnes-Thompkins looks down after he thought Valentine touched the baseline during the first half.

And if that holds true this year, and the Spartans are actually playing better in four months than they are now, well, watch out.

Because they're playing darn good right now.

"Sometimes, you know, my teams for the most part have gotten better as the year goes," Izzo said Thursday, following a 99-68 victory over Boston College in the opener of the Wooden Legacy tournament. "I still think we have a tremendous ceiling."

Michigan State is 5-0 for, amazingly, just the third time in Izzo's tenure at Michigan State.

The Spartans started 7-0 in 2013-14, which ended in the Elite Eight, and 12-0 in 2000-01, which ended in the Final Four.

MSU didn't even start 5-0 in 1999-2000, its championship season, because of an early season loss to Texas.

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Again, that's the theme. MSU typically plays a tough nonconference season, and it identifies the warts — so that Izzo and Co. can spend the following three months gearing up for the NCAA Tournament, which always has meant more to Izzo than anything with the Big Ten.

There's not too many warts right now, at least not from the naked eye. Of course, Izzo seems every last one of them.

For starters, while Denzel Valentine is playing very much like the top player in the country right now, following his second triple-double of the month, Izzo wants to see more on-court leadership, Draymond Green-style.

Izzo wants to see the offense run more through big man Matt Costello.

Heck, he might even want to see Tum Tum Nairn take more 3s, after he drained his first two of the season Thursday, following a summer of self-imposed, daily 6:30 a.m. shootarounds.

And there's more room for improvement, too, even for a team ranked No. 3 in the nation, coming off a big win over Kansas earlier this month, and drawing rave reviews from Boston College Jim Christian, who called MSU the top team in the country.

Izzo quickly dismissed that notion, knowing the only time the No. 1 matters is when it means you're the only team left standing in March.

That's not to say Izzo isn't pleased with what he's seen through five games, with two more coming up this weekend — including a potential title-game showdown with perennial power Arizona. He is. He's just exercising caution.

"We're playing good right now, and I told my guys we'll see how we handle that early success," said Izzo, whose team began the season ranked No. 13, but shot up after beating Kansas. "Now we're going from hunting to being hunted. Teams are going to be giving us their best game."