MSU's Izzo: Bring back heat of being No. 1

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — For four weeks, Michigan State was ranked the No. 1 team in the nation.

It was the longest stretch at No. 1 in program history, surpassing a three-week stay it had at the top in the 2013-14 season.

It seems odd considering the success coach Tom Izzo has had in now his 21st year leading the Spartans, and quite frankly, Izzo would rather play with the pressure and the scrutiny that comes with the No. 1 billing.

“To hell with being the underdog,” Izzo said this week as No. 5 Michigan State prepared to host Illinois on Thursday. “I think to take the next step in this program players have to understand that twice they are waiting to mob the court. At Oakland they were waiting to; at Iowa they did.  At Minnesota, according to people there, they played their best game.

“Our players have to understand that is what that rating does to you. As they say in the military with rank comes responsibility.”

The Spartans sure got everyone’s best shot — something that usually happens regardless of rankings. At The Palace in late December, Michigan State had to rally to knock off Oakland. That was the court-storming Michigan State avoided by erasing a 15-point deficit.

Illini's Hill, Nunn pose problems for MSU

It couldn’t avoid it in the Big Ten opener at Iowa when the Hawkeyes controlled the game, taking advantage of Denzel Valentine being out of the lineup and shutting down Bryn Forbes.

Not having Valentine for the bulk of that stretch at No. 1 hurt, but Izzo still isn’t sure his team handled it well. He’s hoping they get another shot as the season moves into the thick of the Big Ten schedule.

“It’s time to move to a new direction. I am tired of being the underdog,” Izzo said. “I don’t mind the pressure anymore. I actually like it. I actually think it is a compliment and I think our program and our fans and everybody else has to learn to deal with it and that means we didn’t play well. I wasn’t happy with the way we played. I was not has unhappy with the loss at Iowa as the way we played.

“So, I am going to answer differently by saying as long as we can remain ranked No. 1 that means the better we are playing and the better we accept the responsibility that is bestowed upon us with that ranking.”

Home court

Freshman guard Matt McQuaid has had his share of ups and downs in his first year at Michigan State. He started fast with big shots and big defensive stops in the victory over Kansas, but by the time the Spartans opened Big Ten play at Iowa, McQuaid was showing signs of hitting a bit of a wall.

It wasn’t a real surprise considering the 6-foot-5 shooting guard is being forced to play almost primarily at point guard. But following a rough outing at Iowa that included two turnovers, one assist and no points, the Spartans headed to Dallas.

And that’s home for McQuaid.

Technically, he’s from the suburb of Duncanville, and the Spartans practiced at his old high school.

“It was good to be back home and see my old coach and teammates,” McQuaid said. “They got to watch the practice and hang out. … It was a really cool experience.

It might have been a refresher for McQuaid, who played 30 minutes in the win at Minnesota and didn’t turn the ball over.

“That was the first game in the last four that I didn’t see the deer-in-the-headlights look,” Izzo said. “That was encouraging. Maybe taking him home, letting him shoot in his own gym was a blessing.”

The trip also brought him closer to his teammates.

“He was the man of the town,” Valentine said. “He was telling us where everything was, this and that, where the foods spots are and where he did this one weekend and what he used to do after school. He kinda opened up a little bit and he was a little bit more talkative. I got to know him a little bit better.”

Slam dunks

Eron Harris was in line to start his fourth straight game on Thursday with Valentine likely to return Sunday at Penn State.

In games against Oakland, Iowa and Minnesota, Harris is averaging a team-high 19.3 points, shooting .486 from the field and averaging 8.7 foul shots per game. The junior, who scored 27 against Oakland and 21 against Iowa, is also averaging five rebounds in the last three games.

… Michigan State entered Thursday’s game with a plus-13.6 rebounding margin, leading the Big Ten and ranking third in the nation. It has outrebounded 14 of 15 opponents this season, including Louisville by 10 after the Cardinals entered the game with a +21.4 margin.