EAST LANSING - Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said he is not necessarily using the program's streak of 13 straight years of being invited to the NCAA Tournament as a motivator as the Spartans try to dig out of a trouble slump.
The Spartans (13-10 and 5-6 in the Big Ten) have lost four of their last five games and would be outside of the NCAA Tournament field if today were Selection Sunday. Michigan State has participated in the last two Final Fours and has the third-longest streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament. But Izzo said he doesn't plan to remind his team that the streak is in serious jeopardy this week as the Spartans return home to face Penn State (12-10, 5-6) on Thursday at Breslin Center.
"I can't say I addressed it (the NCAA Tournament streak being in jeopardy) except that you talk about how you have a lot of games left winnable games, some big games left, which helps you," Izzo said during Monday's weekly press conference. "There is no question that you fight as a coach whether you want to put pressure on them or take it off them. I think the public puts enough on them that you try to keep it off them.
"But there does come a point in time when not talking about it doesn't really help because they are not idiots, they know what's going on. They see it, read it, they watch TV. Everybody knows roughly what you have to do to get into the NCAA Tournament. The pressure of the streak, that's there but there has been pressure of going to Final Fours that we have overcome and found ways to use it to our advantage."
Izzo said Thursday's 72-52 loss at Iowa was surprising, baffling, disturbing. But he said Sunday's 82-56 loss at Wisconsin was not as bad as the score indicated. In fact, he found some positives.
"We didn't play good (at Wisconsin), but we didn't play as bad as they played great," Izzo said. "When you shoot 47 percent in the first half and you are down 18, you definitely have to question your defense. But when you watch the film some of the shots that they made, you definitely have to give credit to their offense. So like the whole year, it's been a combination of things. All I can deal with now is trying to work our way out of it. We dug a hole. It's a hole we have been in a couple of times as I look back on my 16 years.
"We are kind of like our '01/'02 team. We have to win some games down the stretch. There will be more pressure on us. Maybe that's not all bad because other things haven't worked real well."
In 2002, Michigan State was 14-10 and 5-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 15, with only five conference games remaining. MSU won all five, and somehow finished 10-6 in the Big Ten.
The '02 team had sophomore Marcus Taylor, who led the Big Ten in scoring and assists, but had an offensively-challenged center in Aloysius Anagonye and three freshmen in the team's top six, and very little on the bench.
The '02 team had the pressure of trying to make the NCAA Tournament after the Spartans had been to three straight Final Fours. That team had precious few remnants from the '01 Final Four. This year's Spartan team returned five key players from the '09 and '10 Final Fours, although one of them - reserve guard Korie Lucious - was dismissed from the team on Jan. 26.
"There is more pressure on this group, more expected of this group, but remember there were a lot more things that happened to this group if you look at the summer injuries, you look at the injury to (redshirting wing) Russell Byrd, you look at this or that. They may be excuses but they are things that happened and consequently take a toll as they are mounting up," Izzo said. "I am going to reiterate one thing that I want to make sure you understand. I questioned a lot of things at Iowa. I couldn't figure out why we looked so inept. It would be a lot easier if we had practiced that way. I'm tired of telling you we practiced pretty well.
"I thought our mental state was really good going into the Wisconsin game. The score was 10-7, and we were playing okay. Then we miss a couple of wide open shots and a dunk and all the sudden the roof caved in. It wasn't that we quit on it. Nobody was complaining in the huddle or saying the things that everybody is looking for and some people are writing about.
"The is the time of year when the minnow turns into Moby Dick and I have to deal with it so I will deal with it.
"I thought Kalin Lucas is making some big strides. I felt like the guy I'm worried about a little bit is Delvon Roe and where he can go right now because he was really starting to play better and we need him."
During Monday's Big Ten teleconference, Izzo was asked what his boyhood hero Vince Lombardi would tell the Spartans.
"No. 1, it wouldn't be for radio," Izzo said. "And No. 2, don't look for any help from somebody else. You had better look from within.
"We are just going to have to work our way out. I'm sick of using that line, but it's a true statement.
"I don't look for any excuses for how we played at Iowa, but just about every other game I can deal with what happened. If I can't deal with that (the Iowa loss) then I couldn't deal with Wright State (in 2000). I had trouble dealing with Northwestern and Penn State at home that one year."
Izzo's National Championship team of 2000 inexplicably lost at Wright State in late December of that season.
In 2009, the Spartans lost home games to the lowly, suddenly-hot shooting teams of Penn State and Northwestern at Breslin Center. The '09 team also lost by 20 points or more to Maryland, North Carolina and Purdue during the regular season, but rallied in March, blasted the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament (Louisville) and advanced to the National Title game.
"I'm sure the Dukes are having trouble with the St. John's (game), and what happened," Izzo said. "Every year there is one. That (the Iowa game) was our one and we bounced back with the Wisconsin one, when the score looked worse than the play. That's what happens when you get in a slump. I just hope that you take the time to look at the entire body of work.
"Be disappointed but we ain't done yet, as Yogi Berra or somebody said."
Izzo said he continues to be encouraged by the play of senior guard Kalin Lucas, who only recently has regained much of the burst and scoring ability that had been absent through the first two-thirds of the season after blowing out his Achilles tendon last March.
Lucas had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting against the Badgers. Lucas was 2-of-4 from 3-point range, remaining the only reliable perimeter-shooting threat for the Spartans. Senior Durrell Summer, last year's Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Regional, fell deeper into a season-long slump at Wisconsin, going 3-of-12 from the field and 0-for-2 from 3-point range. Summers is shooting just 35 percent from the field in Big Ten games.
Izzo said the Spartans will look to use Lucas more as a go-to option as a shooting guard. Izzo also said he was pleased with the defense of reserve, walk-on guard Mike Kebler, stating that it was the best defense Kebler had played this year. Izzo said he planned to use Kebler more in coming games, which could mean more use of Kebler at point guard and Lucas at the two, as means of sparking some scoring for a team that ranks 9th in the Big Ten in scoring offense and dead last in field goal percentage offense.
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