EAST LANSING - Michigan State is merely 1-1 in its last two games, but the Spartans may have played their two best back-to-back games of the season during last week's 75-57 victory over Penn State, and Tuesday's 71-61 loss at No. 2 Ohio State.
Michigan State has altered its way of doing things on offense, reducing emphasis on range shooting and jump shots and instead choosing to pound the ball inside for more touches in the post. The result was strong, 57-percent shooting against the Buckeyes. But MSU's advantage in shooting accuracy and rebounding was negated by 19 turnovers and a 23-shot deficit in free throws attempted.
Michigan State will enter Saturday's game against Illinois at 14-11 overall, 6-7 in the Big Ten. The Spartans are squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble while trying to extend the nation's third-longest streak of consecutive tournament appearances to 14.
"Everybody can say, 'Well you played pretty well at Ohio State,'" Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after Thursday's practice. "But if we're into moral victories at Michigan State, shame on us.
"You can do a lot of things to be in games but you have to do more to win games. To win games, you need two or three of your best players to play well. We need Durrell Summers, so we are going to put some focus on that. We are really pleased with the way Mike Kebler and even Austin Thornton played. We are really excited about the way all three of our inside guys played, and Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green were really good. So we think we are moving forward in a positive note. We are not looking at it as any kind of a good feeling because we played close, but more so that certain guys played good and the ones that didn't, we have to raise their game a level. I feel good about where we're moving."
Payne, Bigs Playing Better
Freshman Adreian Payne turned in his productive game of the Big Ten season with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting in just 11 minutes. Izzo is calling on the 6-foot-10 post player to deliver more of the same.
"I brought him in (to my office) and said, 'Why?'" Izzo said. "I told him that he played with more energy, and the energy caused him to play better. And that's what I'm going to stick with.
"And he says, 'Well what do you mean?'
"So I took the DVD out and showed him when he made that one play and really got into it and I said, 'That's enthusiasm, excitement, energy.' I said, 'Look at the other players, everyone is hugging everyone, excited, doing everything. You have to play with more emotion, A.P. This cool and casual crap isn't what we need.' And he laughed."
Izzo said Payne was also motivated and confident to play against fellow Ohioan Jared Sullinger, star center for the Buckeyes.
"Adreian played with him in AAU ball," Izzo said. "There is competition there. Sullinger got all of the pub, and he didn't. They're friends."
The confrontation loosened up Payne and helped him play more like the Top 50 player Izzo recruited than the one who has struggled this year to come back from four months off during the off-season due to shoulder surgery.
Izzo made sure that Payne got back to work hard during Thursday's practice.
"They have to have more confidence, but the cool and casual of college basketball, I hate," Izzo said. "I like guys that are more in it. I am starting to see Kalin Lucas with more of a smile, because he feels better, he is doing more. And that's what I think those big guys need. Derrick Nix has been fighting so many things. He is always mad at the world. Right now he is not mad at the world. He is playing better."
Nix had 7 points and 3 rebounds in 11 minutes at Ohio State. Nix played hard, and asked to come out at one point due to being winded.
Garrick Sherman started in place of the hobbled Delvon Roe at center, and delivered 6 points and 2 rebounds in 17 minutes.
"I think we are making some progress," Izzo said. "I don't know where it's going to get us, but I'm excited about (Thursday's) practice. It's not phony upbeat. I think we're making some progress."
Roe was considered questionable during Michigan State's bye weekend. Meanwhile, Izzo scripted plays for Payne as a go-to player. And Payne responded. Nix also delivered some nifty post offense. Sherman scored on a pair of high-low passes from Draymond Green while successfully sealing out Sullinger, who attempted to front-deny the entry pass.
"Those guys are getting better," Izzo said. "Nix is getting better and so is A.P., and Sherm has a little more confidence now. All three give us something different. One is more of a finesse, understands things, one is more of a banger, and one is more of an athlete. It's kind of a good combination.
"We are going to be able to go big now, and we are going to be able to go small. We are going to be able to do both and if we can get Delvon back it will give us a team that is more versatile and I just love the way our inside guys played, and I love the way they practiced today because there seems to be a little bit more hip to their hop. There really is.
"We out-rebounded a very good Penn State rebounding team by 15 and then we outrebounded Ohio State by eight. So our defense is better, our rebounding is better. Lucas has been playing at a whole different level. I watched film of us playing Illinois the last time and then I watched the film of our Ohio State game right before that, and he is a different player now.
"I think it (Saturday's game against Illinois) is close to a 'must' game. There is a lot on the line. I kind of like the way we are responding. Instead of chickening out, it's let's go get it. That's the approach we're going to take."
The Latest On Roe
Izzo was a bit vague on Roe's health status.
"Today, he had it (his knee) drained a little bit, and that wasn't bad at all," Izzo said. "That was encouraging."
Roe suffered a bruised bone while making a lay-up late in last week's victory over Penn State. The lay-up provided Green with his 10th assist of the night and closed out a triple-double for the junior power forward.
Roe, who has undergone several knee surgeries since his senior year in high school, played eight minutes against the Buckeyes, and struggled with lateral movement.
Roe was in his practice uniform on Thursday, but sat out most drills.
"It's not like it feels bad until he starts going this way (laterally)," Izzo said. "That's what we don't know: Is it a 10-day deal? If it is, he probably won't be ready on Saturday. As tough as he is, could he play some? Playing against Ohio State didn't set him back any, but he couldn't do much. I expect him to be able to do a lot more this week, but whether he plays or not will depend mostly on him."
Izzo Challenges Fans
With a slumping senior shooter and an injured junior power forward, Izzo says he needs Michigan State's fans to come forth with their best effort of the year for Saturday's crucial game against Illinois.
The game will tip off at 9 p.m. and serve as the anchor of ESPN's lineup of Saturday game. ESPN will broadcast its "GameDay" programming from the Breslin Center, beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
"I'm so excited about it. I'm anxious to see how our fans react, I really am," Izzo said. "For a lot of things they put obligations on us, and rightfully so but I'm putting one on them for this because there is a reason that you get another GameDay, it's because they think your place is one of the better places. It's not just the game. There are a ton of good games out there. But they think the venue, the things that go on (are worthy of it). And I'm challenging our people.
"We haven't been as good as we should be this year, but we are going to get better and I'm challenging them that we have to find a way to get more and more and more people in for GameDay, because we are the only team this year that is on two GameDays. One at home and one on the road. That's a privilege and I take it as a privilege for them to come back here within a couple of years, because they really try to spread it out. And I think that speaks volumes about our place, our fans and our program."
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