East Lansing – Tom Izzo gets it.
He gets why fans are frustrated by his rotation — one many detractors feel played into Sunday’s loss at Ohio State. He gets why there’s frustration over the lack of consistency, especially from players who’ve been around the block like senior Eron Harris. And he gets why there is plenty of consternation over a 12-7 overall record.
But Izzo had one key piece of advice for anyone — fan of the program or not — that was thinking about writing off the Spartans this season.
“You can bet against us,” Izzo said. “I wouldn’t advise you to.”
That’s almost always proven to be a wise strategy for those following Izzo’s Michigan State teams. Rarely are the Spartans at their best midway through the season, and with several injuries and a reliance on freshmen Izzo hasn’t dealt with to this level, the inconsistent play is probably not that big of a surprise.
However, none of it has Izzo worried. He admits this season is new territory for him, but he also believes this team is just scratching the surface.
“We have a lot of room for improvement and we have reason to think we can improve and that’s why I have to keep the noise away from the players because this group is good,” Izzo said. “They are great guys. They work hard. They have to grow up a little faster than we would like them to. But for what I put them through, I’m not satisfied with where we are but I’m not worried that we are going to collapse or something. We’re going to get better. The schedule is going to get tougher and we’re going to get better and see where it takes us.”
With the Spartans (12-7, 4-2 Big Ten) not playing again until Saturday, there’s plenty of time to work on their own game, and that will be the focus over the next two days before Indiana prep begins in earnest.
One of the main focuses, as it has been for some time, is working on a rotation. Izzo took plenty of criticism for making wholesale changes just minutes into Sunday’s loss at Ohio State when Michigan State started 6-for-6 from the field but watched the offense stall with the substitutions.
However, Izzo said again on Tuesday there is more to it than just taking guys out with a lead.
“I’ve said in the last three weeks we have to get a playing rotation down and I’ve never been this late in the year and not had one,” Izzo said. “But those playing rotations, there’s not as much consistency to them in certain areas. No. 1 injuries, No. 2 foul trouble and No. 3 when you’re playing all these freshmen, the ups and downs of them, the inexperience creates things that sometimes you might now see. But I gotta deal with them.”
Izzo believes there are clear reasons that he’s dealing with this six games into conference play. He also hesitates to point them out because he knows his detractors will say he’s making excuses. Still, he believes it’s clear why there are still inconsistencies.
Starting four freshmen is one while the brutal early schedule put the Spartans behind in practice time. The biggest issue, however, might be the injuries. On top of Miles Bridges missing seven games because of an ankle injury and Joshua Langford slowed at the start of the season because of a hamstring, big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter have missed the entire season. Add in the fact Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid spent the summer rehabbing, and Izzo believes the injuries have played a major factor.
He believes it has created expectations that likely weren’t realistic.
“The perspective has been out of perspective this year,” he said. “Great recruiting class. A ton of injuries. … Then you play that monster schedule early and you’re traveling all over the world. Is that my fault? Yes it is. But it is what it is, and you know what? We’re still surviving. We lost to a pretty good Penn State team. Ohio State is gonna win a lot of games. There’s a lot of veterans on that team; they’re going to win a lot of games. Am I happy where we are? No. Do I understand where we are? Partially.”
While he understands it, he also knows it won’t be an excuse forever. If Michigan State is to extend its 19-year NCAA Tournament streak, there needs to be improvement. The Spartans need to play better away from home and as Izzo has hammered home, they need more from McQuaid, Goins and senior Eron Harris.
However, Izzo is also confident it will come because of the type of players he has.
“It’s been a hell of a year, and I think we’re still above water. We’re 4-2 in the league,” he said. “I think we have a lot of work to do, I think fans should get behind this team because it’s a lovable, likable team. I’ve got unbelievable guys.”
Their next chance to show that comes Sunday in Bloomington, Ind., no easy place to play. There will likely be those who already believe Michigan State can’t win. There are also those who don’t see the Spartans getting better.