Soft play and a brutal schedule have left Michigan State smarting
After playing lackadaisically to start the season and so infuriating his coach that he was pulled from the starting lineup, Michigan State junior forward Alan Anderson finally came alive last Saturday afternoon, scoring 15 of his 17 points in the second half to help the Spartans erase a 15-point deficit against No. 14 Oklahoma and force the game into overtime. "I asked Alan, 'Why the turnaround in the second half?' " said coach Tom Izzo. "He said, 'I finally got mad.' " Even though the Spartans ended up losing 80-77 to drop to 3-3, Izzo didn't seem angry afterward. "There were a lot more positives than negatives in this game," he said. "During the second half we started to look like the team I thought we'd be."
That hardly sounded like the same man who five days earlier had said he'd never be happy with a loss because "our program is beyond that right now," but that's what playing a brutal nonconference schedule will do to a coach. In losing to the Sooners, as well as to Kansas and Duke, the Spartans have revealed some startling weaknesses as they plunged from No. 5 in last week's AP poll to No. 21 this week.
Izzo has been searching for the right combination of players and has been forced to go with a four-guard lineup-featuring Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert—because 6'10" forward Erazem Lorbek left school after just one season and is now playing in Europe. Yet oddly enough, their biggest need is in the backcourt. Lacking a true point guard, the Spartans have averaged 16.8 turnovers a game through Sunday. They also have not displayed the toughness that has been the hallmark of Izzo's nine-year tenure.
That was glaringly evident during the 72-50 loss to the Blue Devils in East Lansing on Dec. 3. After watching his team turn the ball over 17 times and get outscored 20-2 during one stretch in the first half, Izzo said he was embarrassed and disgusted, and he even uttered the s word. "We have a soft team," he said. "It's about time some boys became men." Izzo was talking primarily about Anderson, who had more turnovers (five) than points (four) while playing out of position at point guard, and 6'10" sophomore center Paul Davis, who through Sunday was shooting just 43.3% from the floor while averaging 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
Izzo threatened to pull Davis from the starting lineup against Oklahoma but didn't, and Davis responded with his best outing of the season, scoring 17 points that included a three-point play with 6.9 seconds remaining to force the OT "I needed a game like this," Davis said. "Now I've got to keep it up."
Michigan State will need an extra effort from all its players this Saturday, when it's scheduled to face No. 8 Kentucky at Detroit's Ford Field in a game that is expected to draw 75,000 fans, a world record for attendance at a basketball game. But even if the Spartans were to lose again, Izzo will make no apologies for his oppressive schedule. "We could have played three cupcakes and been 6-0 right now, but that's not what I wanted to do," said the coach after the Oklahoma loss. "This is going to pay dividends in the long run."
Fresh Start in Starkville
Roberts Lays Old Demons to Rest
Lawrence Roberts will never forget the day last summer when one of his friends on the Baylor team called to say that their teammate Patrick Dennehy hadn't been heard from for a week. "I didn't think anything of it at first," Roberts recalls, "but after I hung up the phone, I started wondering, Could I go that long without contacting anybody?"
Roberts's worst fears were confirmed on July 27 when the sophomore forward's body was found in Waco, Texas, six days after Baylor junior forward Carlton Dotson was arrested and charged with Dennehy's murder. That set off a chain of events that saw Baylor get placed on NCAA probation, cost coach Dave Bliss his job and led four players to transfer. (They were granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA instead of having to sit out a year.) Roberts was one of them, and he has made the most of his new beginning at Mississippi State.