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MSU may turn to Carter as pill to crack Syracuse zone

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Detroit — As Michigan State gets set to face Syracuse and its 2-3 zone in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon, the Spartans might have a secret weapon.

OK, maybe senior Ben Carter isn’t much of a secret, but the sixth-year player who has battled back from two knee surgeries and a bad ankle early this season, could play a significant role against Syracuse and beyond, especially if Michigan State advances and takes on Duke next week.

“That's why we got him a little more time because he's pretty solid in the middle of that zone,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He really has a high basketball IQ. Xavier (Tillman) playing a little more has really helped because he has a high basketball IQ. So, we feel we have different people that we can put in different positions.”

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The fact that one of those players is Carter is a testament to how the veteran has kept himself prepared this season. After playing double-digit minutes in five of the first seven games, Carter saw his playing time dwindle. The ankle injury he suffered cut it even more to the point he did not play in 12 games this season.

Entering Friday’s game against Bucknell, Carter hadn’t played in three straight. But he got 10 minutes against the Bison and will likely see that time increase against Syracuse.

“I think I can have an important role on this team,” Carter said. “With my passing ability and my ability to knock down the 15-footer in the middle of that zone, it’s important for me to always prepare for each and every game as if I will play. That way if I don’t get any minutes at least I’m ready if I do play.”

While Carter will likely have a larger role, freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. will still be vital in attacking the zone, and Carter has put nearly as much time in this season helping his younger teammate. That has been the case over the weekend.

Now, Carter should get a chance to join Jackson, and the few minutes he got on Friday were a big help.

“Getting the minutes yesterday was important for me,” Carter said. “Just to get my feet wet and kind of get my confidence back. For me it’s hard to not have actual game reps. Practice reps and game reps are obviously different. But I bring a little experience and I’ve played a lot of games in college. For me I just need to stay mentally focused and be aggressive when I get that time.”

Engler in the house

Michigan State interim president John Engler was at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday and he said the university is not about to hire a permanent athletic director.

“We won't think about anything until after we cut down the nets in San Antonio,” Engler said, referring to the Final Four in two weeks that will be played in Texas.

Engler, who took over on Feb. 5 after the resignation of Lou Anna K. Simon, appointed Bill Beekman as interim athletic director. Beekman is also the vice president and secretary of the Board of Trustees.

Engler, the former governor of Michigan, gave no indication if he would oversee the hiring or if it would come after a permanent president was hired.

“After we finish up in San Antonio,” Engler said, “we’ll probably address that a little bit more.”

Character reference

Izzo has taken his share of criticism this season as he’s been hammered with questions about a report concerning how his program has handled sexual assault allegations and then when Miles Bridges’ name came up in an FBI report stating Bridges’ mother received money and a free meal from the associate of an agent.

On Saturday, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was asked about Izzo. The Hall of Famer in his 42nd season had this to say about Izzo.

“There's no guy that has better character that you would want to be your head coach more than Tom Izzo,” Boeheim said. “I've seen countless situations where I've been around him where he always does the right thing, 100 percent of the time. Tom Izzo would never do the wrong thing. And anybody that thinks other than that, they don't know Tom Izzo. I know him.

“I've been involved in stuff — you're not supposed to say things — but Tom Izzo is not going to do things that aren't right, 100 percent of the time — on the basketball court, off the basketball court. He's a great guy. He's a great leader. And I'm very proud that he's a friend of mine.”

Slam dunks

After the victory over Bucknell on Friday, Michigan State improved to 30-4 on the season. It marks MSU’s fourth 30-win season, all under Izzo.

The Spartans won 33 in 1998-99; 32 in 1999-2000; and 31 in 2008-09.

… Michigan State is 21-5 in the second game of an NCAA Tournament weekend under Izzo. All five losses have all come to No. 1 seeds or eventual national champions.


Michigan State vs. Syracuse

Tip-off: 2:40 p.m. Sunday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit

TV/radio: CBS/760 AM

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State 30-4; No. 11 seed Syracuse 22-13

Next up: Winner advances to Sweet 16 in Omaha, Neb