November 3, 2012

Hoop Feed: Changes may come at power forward

EAST LANSING - Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne put up the best numbers of any Spartans during Michigan State's sloppy 62-49 victory over St. Cloud State, Friday at Breslin Center. But they didn't impress Tom Izzo as a tandem.

And these exhibition games are more about trying new playing groups more so than scoring victories.

Nix and Payne are trying to play together for the first time in their careers, with Payne sliding out to the starting power forward position. They scored and they rebounded in this game. Nix had a game-high 14 points with seven boards.

"I thought Nix played better today," Izzo said.

He had problems with Nix and Payne as a tandem, especially where Payne was concerned.

Payne was the lone double-double man on the night, with 11 points and 11 rebounds. But Izzo didn't like the way Payne played defense at the four, leading to some open shooting opportunities for St. Cloud and a failing great from Izzo.

At Michigan State, defense comes first. With Payne at the four, defensive assignments became foggy at times.

"We are struggling with playing our two bigs against teams that have these pick-and-pop guys," Izzo said. "Early in the game, their four man (Connor Niehaus) hurt us right away with a couple of 3s and we just did not guard like we have to guard.

"I didn't think Payne played a lot better today as far as doing the job he had to do. Like stepping out on ball screens. If a big doesn't do that, the guard looks awful foolish."

Those struggles probably don't have a direct relation to what MSU will need defensively from the four and the five in upcoming games against Connecticut next Friday in Germany, and Kansas on Nov. 13 in Atlanta. Those opponents won't be as perimeter-oriented with their bigs as St. Cloud State. Still, Izzo would have liked to have seen more adherence to team standards on defense as the Payne project at the four is still in the experimental stages.

"I feel very comfortable about three or four positions but I don't feel comfortable with the fifth," Izzo said.

That would be the power forward position.

"(I don't know) whether we can go big as much as I thought we could," Izzo said. "But you have to keep in mind that the two teams we played in these exhibitions have been 6-7, 6-5 (at the post positions)."

That makes it difficult to get a read on the progress MSU is making in the Payne-Nix low post tandem. There certainly were problems with Payne's defense away from the paint.

"I'm just disappointed that we work on things, like how we get over ball screens, and we just had a bunch of bigs that went to sleep," Izzo said. "It's our bigs, especially our four man, not stepping up and not doing the things you have to do.

"We were supposed to be stepping up and showing and we had guys playing two feet behind. That part of it was very discouraging. When they hit a couple of 3s, we had a couple of people that were afraid to leave their man and that's not how we play," Izzo said.

And that's before detailing the long list of problems on offense.

  • MSU had 20 turnovers and only 10 assists, an ugly 1-to-2 ratio that is more appropriate for a bad middle school intramural club than the nation's No. 14-ranked team.

  • MSU was 3-of-13 from 3-point range.

  • The Spartans were just 15-of-28 from the foul line.

  • MSU out-rebounded its Division II opponent by only four, at 43-39.

    "It was like everything collapsed at once," Izzo said. "We are still turning the ball over way too much."

    Freshman wing Denzel Valentine led the team with four turnovers, marking the second straight game he had four giveaways.

    "He is trying to do too much, and the game is a little quick for him right now," Izzo said.

    What's Next?

    Izzo didn't hate the way Payne played at the five, when he checked in and played down low when Nix was on the bench. The question is what to do with the starting lineup.

    "We will look at playing a little smaller," Izzo said.

    That most likely means Branden Dawson moving from the three to the four, although Izzo wouldn't concede that as the most-likely scenario.

    "We knew e were going to do some of that," Izzo said of playing with a smaller lineup. "I would hoep we would do 20 minutes a game (with a small lineup) but maybe we'll have to do 30 minutes a game of that. Some of that will change when teams have two bigs in there and teams don't have quite as good of shooters in there (as St. Cloud and Northwood did).

    "I'm not ready to panic on two exhibition games," Izzo said. "I'm disappointed in how we played compared to how we practiced."

    Dawson To The Four?

    Dawson might be the logical candidate to move to the four based on sheer size, strength and athleticism. But he turned in one of his worst outings as a Spartan on Friday night.

    Dawson made poor decisions in transition, shot selection and didn't sprint the right lane fast enough for Izzo's tastes in the transition game.

    Dawson had four points on 1-of-5 shooting, to go with five rebounds. He fouled out in 23 minutes.

    "Dawson didn't play very well," Izzo said. "Just couldn't get into the game. Seemed like he was jogging up and down.

    "I think part of that was moving him around a lot too (from the three to the four). I have to get him at a position and keep him there. I think we will be able to do that now that I know how many minutes we need to play big and how many we need to play small."

    But Izzo wouldn't publicly concede a Dawson permanent move to the four.

    "I'm looking at that," Izzo said. "And yet before I make all those kind of decisions, I have to watch the film.

    "There were just some things about this game that help you and hurt you."

    He indicated he has to be careful about making long-term decisions based on how MSU matched up against a St. Cloud State team which presented personnel issues that the Spartans might not encounter again this season.

    Izzo's Nephew Nails One

    Izzo's nephew, Kevin Levandoski, scored 3 points in 15 minutes as a reserve for St. Cloud. He nailed a 3-pointer early in the game.

    Levandoski said the night was one of the best days of his life, getting a chance to play against his uncle's team.

    It was special for Izzo too.

    "I'm about memory-making events," Izzo said. "That why I schedule like I do. It's a great thrill for me, to have a family member (play against your team) is pretty neat.

    "I knkow from my sister, her husband, my mother and father, it had to be a great night.

    "I'm probably going to have to disown my mother. I saw her wearing a red (St. Cloud) sweater. She doesn't understand where her paycheck is from."

    As for Levandoski, he finished with 3 points. He gave his Uncle Tom a hug during handshake lines.

    At the end of the handshake line, Izzo's son, Steven Izzo, waited for his cousin, Kevin.

    Kevin Levandoski saw Steven, smiled big, knelt down low and gave Steven the biggest hug of the night.

    "I was proud of him," Tom Izzo said of Kevin. "I was proud of their whole team."

    Notes & Observations

  • Nix played with a lot of energy in his last shift of the night. He worked fast and hard to get deeper position in the post, called for the ball, and nailed three field goals in the final five minutes.

  • Izzo complimented Payne for working hard on the boards. He is hungrier for rebounds than in the past, and with broader shoulders than last year he looks like he will do a better job of commanding air space.

  • Point guard Keith Appling played fast and under control, which was nice to see for a player who has often had trouble mixing the two in the past.

    Appling was the only Spartan who shot better than 50 percent from the field while having a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. He shot 4-of-8 for 13 points and had four assists with three turnovers. He was 1-of-3 from 3-point range.

    "I had to play Keith way too many minutes for this early in the year but that's just the way it went," Izzo said.

  • Freshman Gary Harris sprinted the left lane harder than in the first exhibition, making good on Izzo's and Keith Appling's declaration that they would get the wings to run harder in transition. Harris had 11 points but was sidelined for portions of the second half with cramps.

    "He was playing really well early," Izzo said. "He did everything I wanted him to do, running the lanes real well, got to the lane, played defense well."

  • MSU is expecting to have its best depth since 2005. But in this game, the playing group was quickly whittled to just eight players.

    Brandan Kearney missed the game with a pulled groin. Matt Costello missed his second game with a back injury. Izzo isn't sure if either will be available for the UConn game.

    Sophomore Alex Gauna played only six minutes, due in part to this game not being conducive to multiple big men, and also due to getting beat deep once in full-court press defense, and also committing a moving screen. He did score a field goal with a nice drop step move as part of the secondary break.

  • Russell Byrd played primarily as the first power forward off the bench. He was 1-of-4 from the field and 0-of-2 from 3-point range. Byrd had 1 rebound. His one turnover bothered Izzo.

  • Sophomore point guard Travis Trice wasn't as productive as he was in the first exhibition. He had 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting in 25 minutes. He had 1 assist and 3 turnovers.

    State of the Team

    Izzo on the state of the Spartans through two exhibition games: "In the first game, I thought in the second half we played pretty well. This game, I didn't think we did either half. That was disappointing.

    "Where we are is we are three weeks in. Especially with the way we are moving guys around, we are not in great shape right now, but the season has five months to go, so I'm not worried about that.

    "I'm just trying to figure out where is the carryover, or the lack thereof, from practice to the game. And communication is a problem. We have some guys that don't talk real well."

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