The observation had to be music to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s ears.
These Spartans aren’t as talented as last year‘s, Minnesota’s Jim Molinari observed, but they play harder. The result Wednesday night was a 70-46 home victory over Molinari’s Golden Gophers, running the Spartans’ win streak to four as they enter the toughest part of their schedule.
After an 0-2 start to Big Ten play, Michigan State (17-4, 4-2) has gotten healthy and started to emerge as potentially the league‘s third-best team. Raymar Morgan and Maurice Joseph are back after missing stretches due to injury, and although Isaiah Dahlman (foot injury) missed the Minnesota game, he isn’t expected to be out long-term.
In fact, Izzo thinks the injuries might be a good thing, since they’ve forced big men Marquise Gray and Goran Suton out of their comfort zones.
"All of a sudden Sutton and Gray are playing better, too," Izzo said. "Sure enough, the other night, we get 22 points and 11 rebounds out of the two of them, and Raymar, he gives us strength. He’s a very good player, yet he’s nowhere near where I think he will be by the end of the year. The injury bug has really hit us, yet at the same time, I think we’re making some progress."
A year ago, the Spartans were an enigma, never quite able to live up to the promise of three seniors who would all eventually be picked in the NBA Draft, Mo Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis. Something always seemed to be missing and State exited the NCAA Tournament with a disappointing first-round loss to George Mason (albeit one that looked a lot better after George Mason‘s storybook run).
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but Drew Neitzel has taken his game to another level, Morgan -- when healthy -- is one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic young players, and the pieces just seem to fit better. At times, State is playing the kind of classic, defense-first blue collar basketball that last year’s team never quite was able to replicate.
Against Minnesota, for example, the Gophers were held without a field goal for more than 12 minutes. Opposing players Lawrence McKenzie and Dan Coleman each scored 13 and Jamal Abu-Shamala had 11 points, but no other Minnesota player scored more than 2.
And Izzo also liked how his team rebounded and shot the ball.
Now, however, State has to contend with what might be the toughest test end-stretch schedule in the Big Ten, starting with Saturday’s trip to No. 5 Ohio State. Over the next 10 games, Izzo’s team will play five Top 25 opponents (Ohio State and Wisconsin both home and away, and Indiana at home), a home-and-home series with Michigan, travel to Illinois and Purdue, and host Iowa. Every team on the schedule not only has a winning record, but harbors at least some hope of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But Izzo said earlier this week that he thinks his team is ready to face what he called one of the toughest scheduling stretches of his career.
"There’s a long way to go, but we’re making a few strides forward, and that’s what I’m happy about," he said.
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