Spartans finding a way to win

EAST LANSING — Michigan State keeps winning, and there is no simple reason. And that’s what makes this so much fun. The Spartans have nice talent, but mostly, they seem to win because they really want to win.

They have a bunch of good players trying to make a great team, and I don’t know if they will get there, but they’re getting closer. The Big Ten looks like Ohio State and Everybody Else this year. But the ninth-ranked Spartans can establish themselves as the clear No. 2.

What is the best way to describe this team? Well, the Spartans lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage in league games, by a wide margin, and they lead the league in three-point percentage in league games, too. And yet: They are not a great shooting team.

Don’t take it from me.

“It’s not like we’re a great shooting team,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said.

Izzo’s explanation for the stats: “I don’t think we’ve taken many bad shots. … You got a guy like Brandan Kearney, he doesn’t take any bad shots. We’ve gotten the ball inside and out better, so we’re shooting better from the three.”

Spacing, ball movement, unselfishness — these are the marks of a well-coached team. But as Izzo would tell you, the coach can do only so much. The players have to want to play like this.

Kearney is just a freshman, but he plays like … well, not like a senior, but like a senior would want him to play. With fellow freshman Travis Trice likely sidelined for the Illinois game, Kearney will have to play more minutes with greater responsibility. But Izzo doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about his composure. (“His understanding of the game is in the top two or three guys we have,” Izzo said.)

From seniors to freshmen, the Spartans seem to get it. Izzo has praised Draymond Green’s leadership skills for three years, and the hope was that when Green was a senior, the Spartans would look like the kind of “player-coached team” Izzo always wants. This year, they do.

Most coaches worry about trap doors around every corner, and Izzo adds to that by worrying about perception, too. He sounded a few alarms Monday.

“Brandon Wood and Branden Dawson have to improve their defense,” Izzo said. “They’re getting better. But can they get enough better to play the way we’re going to have to play against these top teams?”

Izzo also pointed out that reporters and fans tend to look at the standings but not each team’s schedule, and MSU still has to play Ohio State twice. And “Illinois is a couple of buckets, a couple of plays away from leading the league right now.” As the season progresses, Big Ten opponents also will have better scouting reports on the Spartans.

This is all true. But it’s the way Izzo said it that stood out. Other MSU teams have scared opponents more, but this team does not scare its coach. When he was asked about playing so many freshmen, he said “ ‘inexperience’ is a better way to put it than ‘freshmen.’ “

Can the Spartans really make a run at Ohio State? I have my doubts — mostly because the Buckeyes are so good, but also because the Spartans don’t have overwhelming skill. But these Spartans don’t seem to care if they are doubted or praised. They just play together and play to win. If you’re a coach or just a fan, that’s all you can ask.


Posted by Tribune News Services

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