Spartans agree: Izzo’s criticism warranted
East Lansing — After Michigan State’s 45-point victory on Monday against Houston Baptist, the Spartans were hardly feeling great about themselves.
Coach Tom Izzo made it clear he wasn’t happy with the effort from the second-ranked Spartans, saying it was far from a championship-level performance against an undermanned team that didn’t make enough shots to take advantage.
And the players agreed, admitting they played to the level of their opponent.
“Maybe there was a lack of focus and maybe we were looking at the jersey of the other team,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “There can be a lot of reasons, but to be the team we want to be we’ve got to fix it.
“It could have been a great night, but we didn’t play or perform like a championship-caliber team.”
Odds are that won’t be the case Thursday as MSU hosts Long Beach State at 7 p.m. at the Breslin Center. The 49ers haven’t been piling up the victories, but they’ll no doubt be more of a challenge for Michigan State.
Long Beach State has lost to Southern Utah and Nebraska — two teams Michigan State handled — but they do have a Power Five win over Stanford.
It will be enough to have the Spartans’ attention after Monday’s performance.
“At the end of the day you have to win games,” Winston said. “Any win we are going to take it. You are going to take the victory and keep moving.”
The wins will keep coming easily if the Spartans (11-1, 2-0 Big Ten) continue to get a solid performance from sophomore Nick Ward. They got that on Monday. Ward scored 20 points and was a perfect 9-for-9 shooting.
But the scoring was only one reason Izzo said Ward was the best player on the court. It was his defense — a source of much frustration for Ward — that had his coach impressed.
“My star, by far, was Nick Ward,” Izzo said. “He communicated, he stepped up on ball screens, he guarded smaller guys, he scored in the post, he ran the lane, his communication was off the charts. By far the best player on the court for us.”
It’s been a work in progress for Ward. He’s always been a gifted scorer but the defensive consistency has been lacking. It helped lead to him spending most of the second half at Rutgers two weeks ago on the bench. However, he’s responded since.
“I just did the best I could,” Ward said. “I talked as loud as I could on defense, and did all I could on the court. But I could have made more free throws, played a little harder on defense, got more rebounds. There are a lot of things I could have done better.”
Ward also added four blocks as Michigan State set a program record by blocking 16 shots against Houston Baptist. He now has 20 blocks this season, while freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. has 40.
The Spartans lead the nation with 8.8 blocks a game and have the best two-point field-goal percentage defense (31.5 percent).
It’s something Izzo hasn’t had often at MSU, but the Spartans have the size up front to have the advantage most games.
“I’m starting to realize it’s more valuable than I even thought,” Izzo said. “Most of the time when you have a good shot-blocker, he’s a guy that just stands in the lane. Jaren Jackson’s a guy who can move around. Miles (Bridges) moves around. Gavin (Schilling) moves around a little bit more. Nick doesn’t as much, but that makes, to me, our shot blocking more versatile and more important.
”I’ve got to say that’s probably the reason for great defensive field-goal percentage. If there’s 10, 12, 13 shots that are taken that don’t even get to the rim, that increases your field-goal percentage (defense) by a lot.”
Long Beach State at MSU
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN Plus/WJR 760
Records: Long Beach State 4-8; Michigan State 11-1
Notable: This is the fifth meeting between the programs, but the first since 1994. The Spartans lead the series, 3-1. … Michigan State will have an eight-day break following the game, not returning to action until Dec. 29 against Cleveland State. … Michigan State enters the game ranked fourth in the nation in assists per game at 19.7.