Sunday, March 3, 2013

Catching up with Spartan (and college) basketball

I haven't written in this blog since the Indiana loss, and I'm sure all one or two of my readers have missed my presence...right?

Since the resounding win over Michigan at Breslin, the Spartans have been treading water. The trouncing of the Wolverines really was not the catalyst I thought it might be, but then again the schedule has been less than favorable for MSU. The Spartans put in a workmanlike performance on the road against Nebraska for a win, then did not play particularly well against Indiana in the big showdown at Breslin. For whatever reason (in his postgame comments, Tom Izzo mentioned "distractions", which could indicate a multitude of possible scenarios) the Spartans did not play with the same focus and determination as they had against Michigan. I'm sure a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that Indiana is not MSU's arch rival and even with first place on the line, did not elicit the same passion from the players. Accordingly, the crowd at Breslin didn't have the same fervor they had at the Michigan game.

The Ohio State loss was baffling. The Spartans seemed in control at halftime, but the game slipped away in the second half. But let's remember that the game was played on the road in Columbus against a team that had already lost to the Spartans and was unwilling to lose another game against MSU. (Oh, and the Buckeyes are a pretty darned good team, too).

In his press conference this week, Tom Izzo said (and I'm paraphrasing) that the MSU fans are panicking. I don't think that's entirely true, though it may seem that way from his perspective. I'm guessing the only fans panicking are a) the "glass-is-half-empty" folks who freak out over every loss and/or b) the fans who don't follow the basketball team too closely anyway and become despondent over any loss (regardless of the opponent or venue).

Most preseason prognosticators had MSU finishing in the middle of the conference this year, and this team has already exceeded those expectations. Much has been made about how youthful the Michigan Wolverines are this season, but Michigan State only has one senior (Derrick Nix) on this year's squad. Last year's vocal leader, Draymond Green, is in the NBA. Despite being a captain, it doesn't appear that Nix has the same personality as Green, nor do any of the other Spartans. In the future, I can envision Matt Costello or possibly Denzel Valentine filling that role. But this season, those guys are freshman and not really in a position to take on that leadership role. It's a rare freshman who can gain enough confidence and respect from his or her teammates to become a leader, with Earvin "Magic" Johnson coming to mind immediately.

What I'm getting at is that MSU's struggles of late may also have to do with the fact they don't have a vocal leader who takes command when the going gets rough, and that is due to the youth of this year's team. The Spartans have three freshmen (Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, and Matt Costello) who play significant minutes. Travis Trice and Branden Dawson are still only sophomores, and though Keith Appling is a junior, his personality seems to be that of a quiet guy and not a natural leader.

So later today the Spartans will take on the Wolverines again, this time at the Crisler Center. (I still have a hard time calling Crisler by it's new name. It'll always be Crisler Arena to me. Quite frankly, I'm surprised the folks at Michigan would give the place a new name that sounds so similar to Breslin Center). The general feeling on sports talk radio this week is that Michigan is down after the Wolverines' stunning loss to Penn State and has lost some confidence. I don't buy that for a second. Michigan will be jacked to the moon for this game and will want to prove that the Penn State loss, and the beating they took at Breslin, were anomalies. I expect that Michigan will win a close game today over the Spartans. I certainly hope I'm wrong, but realistically the Spartans will probably have a difficult time winning against the Wolverines in what amounts to a payback game.

The last two games of the season are at Breslin, and I think the Spartans will win those--but it will be interesting to see how a potential three-game losing streak will affect MSU. Wisconsin has become the Spartans' second most hated rival, so maybe the Breslin crowd will be enough to lift the Spartans past their doldrums and on to victory. The season finale is against Northwestern, and not to sound too cocky, but I don't think the Wildcats have a prayer in that game. The emotion of Senior Day will lead the Spartans to a 15-20 point win.

But first up, Michigan. Strap on your seat belts and get ready for what should be one hell of a ride at Crisler.

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