Unpredictable Spartans Make Izzo Edgy Heading Into Big Ten Tournament

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Tom Izzo's right knee bobbed above his tapping foot as he fidgeted with the cap of a water bottle, twisting it on and off.
Izzo was worked up Monday about the free-throw disparity that worked against Michigan State in three crucial losses, the critics who knocked the Spartans even when they were 19-2 and his team's inconsistent play.
The 19th-ranked Spartans were undefeated at home this year, lost five of their last six road games and won three of four games on a neutral court.
Heading into this week's Big Ten tournament, no one -- including Izzo -- is sure what to expect from the conference's preseason favorite.
"I have trouble judging where this team is," Izzo acknowledged.
The Spartans (24-7, 12-6 Big Ten) will be the fourth-seeded team in Indianapolis, where it will play No. 5 Ohio State (19-12, 10-8) in a rematch of the regular-season finale. The winner will likely play top-seeded Wisconsin.
Michigan State fell apart Sunday on the road against the Buckeyes, scoring just two points in the last five-plus minutes and struggling with the ball so much that it had a season-high 21 turnovers in a 63-54 loss.
"The turnovers definitely were a shame," Izzo said. "But it's correctable and I'm looking forward to playing them again."
Turnovers hurt the Spartans in many of their losses, but Izzo also lamented the total of free throws attempted in setbacks at Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State.
In those three games, opponents combined to shoot 100 free throws to Michigan State's 31.
"Hacking you can control, some of the other things you can't control," Izzo said, referring to calls officials make.
Even though Izzo often says he tries to block out what outsiders think of his program, it usually bothers him on some level.
"People think a lot more about our team away from home than they do here," Izzo said.
A bit reluctantly, Izzo does agree with those who believe Michigan State did not meet expectations in the regular season because senior guard Drew Neitzel struggled at times.
The preseason All-American and Big Ten player of the year made a pair of 3-pointers in the first 1:23 against in the last game against the Buckeyes, then went scoreless by missing his next three attempts and passing up a shot that led to a shot-clock violation late in the game.
He is averaging 13.4 points a game -- down from 18.1 as a junior -- and has shot about half as many free throws compared to last season. The lackluster season left him off the Wooden Award's top 24 list, which was released Monday.
"I don't think he's coming off picks as hard as he did last year and he's passing up some shots," Izzo said. "When that happens, you're not as confident as you should be.
"You can coach a team, but you're not a psychologist, who can jump into somebody's brain."
Izzo, though, is hopeful Neitzel can play up to his potential for the rest of the month in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
"Maybe this is a new start for him," Izzo said.


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