East Lansing — The hard part will be reminding everybody it’s not as easy as it looks.
But after performances like the one Michigan State turned in Thursday night at the Breslin Center, looking every bit like the nation’s newly-anointed No. 1 team in a 91-61 rout of Maryland, even Tom Izzo admits he’s “90 percent happy” with where his team is at right now.
For him to say that in the first week of January, just a few games into the annual Big Ten meat grinder, tells you plenty about how good these Spartans already are.
So does the stat sheet that showed 30 assists on 32 made field goals for Michigan State on Thursday, a ringing endorsement to start the new year which left Izzo gushing, “That kind of tells you what kind of team I have: the most unselfish team around.”
Izzo knows he has a championship team around him this season, no question. A roster so flush with talent that Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, in his 20th year as a head coach, was left shaking his head after the 30-point drubbing, saying, “I can count on one hand, losses like that.”
Yet Izzo also knows the truth — and the titles — are in the details. And that’s really what had him so excited Thursday night.
He’d spent all week bracing for a letdown, what with the Spartans coming off the holiday break — most students still weren’t back on campus for Thursday’s game — and a soft spot in the nonconference schedule that featured four successive blowout wins over lesser opponents like Houston Baptist and Savannah State.
Izzo went so far as to show his team video cut-ups of the blocked field goal that sparked Georgia’s overtime win over Oklahoma in Monday night’s college football playoff semifinal. He also showed the missed box-outs on free throws by Oregon in last year’s Final Four that allowed North Carolina to play for the national title.
“Just to try to say the little things do matter,” Izzo explained.
And to see it show up in his team’s play Thursday, well, yes, that did matter. A lot.
Playing with passion
In the middle of 15-0 run in the first half, Xavier Tillman, the Spartans’ 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward, went diving on the floor after a loose ball, sliding like Pete Rose into the Michigan State bench, where he was immediately mobbed by his teammates. And also by Izzo, who grabbed him in a spirited headlock as he helped him to his feet, a sight that had football coach Mark Dantonio grinning from his courtside seat.
“I’ve been looking for a guy who likes to dive on the floor and get his elbows and his knees bloodied,” Izzo said of Tillman, who had six points and five rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench. “He plays with some passion.”
The coach hasn’t lost his, obviously. Later, with the game comfortably in hand — the Spartans holding a 20-point margin early in the second half — Izzo read the riot act to longtime assistant Dane Fife after another warning from the refs to Michigan State’s bench for standing. And to show he was serious, Izzo snapped a clipboard over his knee.
That happens several times a year with him, but usually those clipboard sacrifices are reserved for timeout tantrums after lethargic defensive displays. If the Spartans keep playing like this — scoring points by the bushel while leading the nation in both defensive field-goal percentage and rebounding margin — the coach may have to manufacture reasons to be angry.
Because this Big Ten race sure feels like it’s over before it even starts. Michigan State hasn’t won the conference outright since 2008-09, the season they went on to play for the national title against North Carolina at Ford Field. But in a down year for the league and with a favorable schedule — the Spartans play Purdue, Minnesota and Michigan just once each, with only the Gophers on the road among those contenders — they’ll be expected to run away with the regular-season title this winter.
“When they can be that deep and shoot the ball from all positions and their low-post game is so good, they’re tough to guard,” Turgeon said. “But I think what separates ’em this year is they’re really guarding you. You don’t get anything easy and you definitely don’t get anything easy by the rim.”
Look, this Maryland team — a top-three finisher in each of its first three seasons in the Big Ten — isn’t what it was supposed to be, not after recent injuries to sophomore star Justin Jackson and backup forward Ivan Bender. But as Turgeon wryly noted Thursday, even if he’d had “five Justins” on the floor, “I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference.”
More than stars
For Michigan State, it starts with the kind of difference-makers other Big Ten teams simply don’t have this season — a pair of NBA lottery picks in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. But it doesn’t end there. Not when the starting lineup is so eager to share the ball, passing without hesitation and reveling in the end result, with Bridges leading the way as a playmaker, much to Izzo’s delight.
“The big thing about our unselfishness is we trust each other’s talent,” said point guard Cassius Winston, who had eight assists without a turnover Thursday. “So when I catch the ball, I know it’s not just me out there.”
No, he’s got plenty of company. None of Michigan State’s starters took more than nine shots against the Terrapins, but four still finished in double figures as the Spartans averaged a whopping 1.4 points per possession. How efficient were they? Izzo’s team shot 16-for-28 (57.1 percent) from the field in the first half, 16-for-28 from the field in the second half, and from three-point range for the game — yep, you guessed it — the Spartans also shot 16-for-28.
That last stat was one shy of a school record for most 3-pointers, and even that was a team effort, with six players knocking down two or more, including the first pair of junior forward Kenny Goins’ career.
“That wasn’t on our scouting report,” Turgeon said, shaking his head. “But he shot it like he’s been working on it. Those were big.”
So was Jackson, who had the hot hand early, draining his first four from beyond the arc and finishing 5-for-6 from deep. But while some of those came as the Spartans worked the inside-out game, others came the way they often did for Bridges a year ago, with Jackson hustling for trailing threes in transition, something Izzo had been harping on in practice this week.
Throw in the other bench contributions, including big shots from Tum Tum Nairn and Matt McQuaid, who also led the Spartans with seven rebounds, and as Izzo says, “it’s easy to feel good about yourself. But we’re gonna find out if this team can do that when we aren’t feeling as good about ourselves.”
Surely they’ll find out somewhere down the road. Maybe even Saturday in Columbus when they travel to face the Buckeyes, who are off a surprising 3-0 start in Big Ten play as well. After all, this is still a team that starts four sophomores and a freshman.
“And as I listen to people around the community talk about what this team is,” Izzo said, not bothering to finish the thought. “It’s a very good team, but we’ve got our weaknesses. And we’ve got to keep getting better every day. That’s gonna be our job as a staff and hopefully the leaders — guys like Tum, Cassius and Miles — to keep us focused on what we’ve got to do.”
Still, as Izzo keeps reminding himself, what the team lacks in experience it makes up for in hunger. And Thursday night, it certainly showed, in big ways and small.