East Lansing — Before the season began, Tom Izzo knew he had depth. The only issue was he wasn’t so sure he had quality depth.
The rotation has been bigger than he’d hoped for, but as Michigan State prepares to play Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, that depth is proving to have plenty of quality.
“All the complaining I did and said I had to get my rotation down and all those things, we’ve actually done a pretty good job of utilizing our guys, and it’s paying off,” Izzo said. “It drove me nuts for a month, but shame on me, it’s actually been a pretty big plus for us in the way things are going now.”
When the Spartans tip off Friday in the Midwest Regional, odds are Izzo will be playing 10 or 11 players, and almost all will see the floor before halftime.
Some of the shuffling has been by necessity because of injuries, others have been because of matchups. But what the final stretch of the season — the Big Ten Tournament, specifically — has shown is that Izzo can count on just about anybody in that rotation.
In the conference championship game against Purdue, it was walk-on Colby Wollenman who dunked home a Matt Costello miss to give Michigan State a seven-point lead with five minutes remaining. And it was junior Alvin Ellis nailing a 3-pointer.
On other nights it’s been sophomore Marvin Clark, falling back into the role he had last season as a tenacious rebounder and spot-up shooter. And freshman guard Matt McQuaid had a couple of timely 3-pointers last weekend.
“We’re all prepared like we’re gonna play,” Wollenman said. “We worked like we’re gonna play and I think it’s a tribute to this team and our depth, the collective mindset from top to bottom. We all have the same goal and work the same way, and it has paid off.”
Clark has become a regular part of the rotation since redshirt freshman Kenny Goins went down with a knee injury Feb. 14 — Goins could expand the rotation with a possible return this weekend — while McQuaid has been a regular contributor and Wollenman’s minutes have been sporadic.
It’s Ellis who has been the true surprise the last few weeks.
Much of his sophomore season was affected by an ankle injury suffered in the opener last year, and some off-court issues over the summer had him in the doghouse. But Ellis never wavered, even volunteering to play on the scout team.
“I think he matured as a person, and understanding that there are important things,” Izzo said. “He’s taken care of things off the court, in the classroom, and he’s put more into his basketball. If you put more in, you usually get more out.
“He is becoming more of a threat, and he’s starting to be more comfortable with himself, in his own skin, and it’s comforting for us to feel we have somebody we can go to.”
In addition to moving to the scout team, Ellis said he’s been spending more time watching film and letting the game come to him when he gets a chance instead of forcing things.
“My confidence level is high,” Ellis said. “I’m making the most out of my opportunity and taking it from there. It’s just a matter of time, and it started with defense. I have been getting a few steals and then breakaway layups or dunks, stuff like that. It’s been leading to more offense, so I’ve been confident.”
It’s also led to Ellis and his arrow shot into the stands after a made 3-pointer last weekend. He said he saw Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers do it, and he took a liking to it.
And now, with Michigan State aiming for a return to the Final Four, the Spartans expect a few more arrows from Ellis, some batting from Clark, a shot or two from McQuaid and maybe even an appearance from Wollenman.
“I think our team is special from other championship teams,” senior Matt Costello said. “Duke last year had six guys and won. We have 12 that can legitimately play. (Javon Bess) is stuck on the end of the bench and could be playing 20 minutes somewhere else. This is a special team.”