EAST LANSING - It's finals week for the players, but a month of new beginnings for the team.
With the Spartans scheduled to play only three games in the next 21 days, Tom Izzo is looking forward to completing a full self-scout evaluation on his team, and then applying the findings to spearhead development for the rest of the season.
When Michigan State makes noise in March, the Spartans almost always point back to making major strides during the quiet weeks of December.
"We have always gotten better over Christmas," Izzo said. "I think this is a year when we can take a significant jump."
Michigan State is 8-2 and ranked No. 19 in the two major polls. Izzo can live with that, for now, content with the knowledge that the Spartans are starting to wire up toward full-strength in the health category, while building a base of familiarity and chemistry on the court.
Several individuals head into mid-December on personal upticks in development and productivity. In addition to helping those areas come along, Izzo is also beginning to focus on championship details for the first time all season.
Sunday, before taking a recruiting trip to Chicago to watch 2014 super blue chip power forward Cliff Alexander, Izzo and his staff broke down Spartan film more intensely than at any time in the young season.
"We spent a lot of time yesterday, just trying to look at some film to say: Where is our ball screen defense? Where is our screening action? Are we ready to shoot? Where's our passing?" Izzo said. "We have not had a lot of time to break down a film."
With no game scheduled until Saturday's 9 p.m. matchup with Tuskegee at Jenison Field House, Izzo is able to do some cramming of his own.
"We spent two hours yesterday (on MSU film) and I haven't done that all year - through nobody's fault," Izzo said. "That's just the way the schedule went."
The only thing Izzo and the coaches are missing in the film room is a little company from the principles.
"It's a little sad that (the players) have these crazy things called finals," Izzo joked. "It ruins a good prep week."
Izzo said most of his players have heavy loads of exams scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. Practice will begin to pick up again on Wednesday.
"We are going to get some individual work in," Izzo said. "We will practice some on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then practice hard on Thursday and Friday since we don't have too many finals on Thursday and Friday. We'll get some work done."
Then they'll play what is expected to be a feel-good game against Division II Tuskegee as part of the 50-year celebration of "The Game of Change."
Then a game next Tuesday at Bowling Green, and a game a week from Saturday at home against Texas.
At some point in between, Izzo will put on the bifocals, get out the Santa hat and the accordion and play some Christmas tunes with his players to a state-wide audience on his radio show.
All part of the Izzo holiday (and development) season.
December Boot Camp Coming
After Thursday, coaches will enjoy unlimited practice and meeting time with players for more than a week. That's when Izzo has been at his December best.
"It's the one time that the NCAA doesn't mandate anything," Izzo said. "In the off week, you can do whatever you want. Next week, we'll have those great two-a-days for a little bit of time. Travel (to Bowling Green) screws up two-a-days a little bit but we'll work that out. We'll have a little bit of a break for Christmas, then come back and spend some real time on us.
"Looking at the team right now, 10 games in, which is almost a third of the way, I have seen enough to know that I do like the pieces of the puzzle. The next two weeks are going to be critical for us to start putting some things together."
State of State
Izzo used Monday's weekly press conference to issue a bit of a State of the Spartans address. Izzo felt it was a good time to step back, take a short breath and take a look at things at the one-third marker of the season.
From a statistic standpoint:
"We have held teams to 36 percent shooting and I don't think we've been great defensively but probably better than I thought," Izzo said. "We are shooting almost 48 or 49 percent and I don't think we are shooting great. So there are some positives there.
"We are out-rebounding our opponents by probably a larger margin than we did last year at this time. So you look at those three categories and you say we're better.
"If you look at turnovers and 3-point shooting, I think we're worse. If you look at rotations as far as where I'm at with this team I don't think we are where we need to be or should be, but we've got some guys coming along now."
Freshman guard Gary Harris is coming off his best game of his young career. He scored 20 points against Loyola on Saturday, including three big 3-pointers during a critical stretch midway through the second half.
Adreian Payne and Travis Trice are starting to settle into their roles as productive offensive threats off the bench.
Payne moved from the starting lineup to the bench after MSU's loss to Miami - not due to errors on his behalf, but as a means of moving inconsistent Branden Dawson[d/b] from the three to the four. Michigan State was a poor perimeter shooting team with Dawson as a wing forward. With Dawson inside as a four, and players such as Trice, [db]Denzel Valentine and Branden Kearney getting more minutes on the wing, MSU's shooting ability increases substantially. Kearney and Valentine haven't yet gotten into a groove as shooters, but their potential to at least be shooting threats from outside is far greater than was Dawson's.
With Dawson moving to the four, one of MSU's big men needed to move to the bench. That was Payne. And he has started to flourish.
Against Loyola, Payne had 14 points and 10 rebounds, serving as the only player with a double-double. He hit face-up jump shots, crammed a put-back dunk, scored in the post with the left hand off an aggressive drop step move, and even turned a loose ball into an open court lay-up and one.
Trice, who continues to make progress toward 100 percent health and conditioning after missing more than two weeks with a concussion, scored an efficient 11 points in just 13 minutes against Loyola. He is expected to get his minutes back up into the high teens, but got into foul trouble against Loyola. Kearney was called upon to play a season-high 23 minutes and delivered good defense to go with five assists and no turnovers.
Each of the above players heads into finals week feeling good about their game.
"We are starting to see Harris get back on track," Izzo said. "I think Trice is going to help us some.
Adreian Payne has played pretty well. I wouldn't say it's a surprise. We just have to get the ball down there more; getting more shots per game (in the post) is something I'm really going to look at.
"We have a couple of keys still: Is Russell Byrd or kearney or valentine going to start making some threes? Are we going to get more out of Branden Dawson; is it going to take another month or two?"
What About Nix>
Some are beginning to conclude that Payne is a much better offensive player than starting center Derrick Nix based on recent stats. But the stats only tell half the story.
Loyola double-teamed Nix every time he touched the ball in the post. Loyola was determined not to let Nix score down there. Loyola double-teamed Payne in the post only once.
To Payne's credit, however, Payne has the versatility to score in the open court (which he did once) and with face-up jumpers (which he did twice).
But Nix, right now, seems to be a higher item on opposing teams' scouting reports. Nix has responded by passing well out of the post. He had only one assist on Saturday, but he did a good job of kicking it out and making the pass that led to an assist for someone else. MSU found success in getting it in, drawing the double-team, then getting it out and throwing one extra pass for the open jumper. Nix had no turnovers on the day.
Payne ranks fourth on the team in scoring, at 8.1 points per game. Nix is sixth at 7.0.
Payne is shooting 62 percent from the field and Nix is shooting 56 percent.
Payne is averaging a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game, and Nix is averaging 6.9.
Izzo wants Nix to continue to improve his ability to read defenses.
"Last year, Nix would get it in the post and throw it out," Izzo said. "If he had anything but a dunk, he would throw it out. We kind of got made at him about it, but it was kind of nice, too.
"This year we told him, 'You have to do more.' He scored more early but then we never got inside-out shots, and we were shooting 20-some percent from the three.
"We have to find a happy medium. We've gone from one extreme to another. He does see the floor really well. What he doesn't see is the basket really well. He can turn and find if there are defenders on him and he can kick it out. What hehas to do is when he finds that there is no defense, he has to score.
"It will help him when we play more teams that aren't doubling. With some of the small guys that we have been playing, they are just taking chances in there. As we play bigger teams, I think that will change."
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