EAST LANSING - Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo spent a good amount time at Tuesday's weekly press conference defending players and pulling the panic button out of the hands of those ready to push it.
After back-to-back losses to the No 1 and 18th-ranked teams in the country in a regular season schedule that is expected to include matchups with at least 10 ranked opponents, Izzo made sure everyone understand the unprecedented and unique situation his team and many other teams in the Big Ten were facing this season.
"Those are the ranked teams we've played,'' he said. "And we've had a couple games that weren't as good as others. But we've been in every game with two minutes left, one way or the other. And that's what's gonna be important as we move on.
"Are they panicking? No, because they know they can play with anybody. We've done it and we've done it on a consistent basis, game after game after game. Are we head and shoulders better than anybody? No, we're not. In fact, if anything we've superseded where I thought we'd be in some ways. And that's the way I'm gonna move on."
And after a two-game performance by starting point guard Keith Appling that resulted in a combined 2-for-14 shooting performance - that included an 0-for-6 finish from beyond the arc - good for just nine points, four assists and seven turnovers, Izzo was not about to make drastic changes to try an jump start Appling's offensive production.
Like getting him more time as a shooting guard.
"I don't think I can do much different defensively with him. He and (Gary) Harris are my two best defenders and they've got to cover guys that are the best offensive players on the other team,'' he said. "Offensively, you can move him around a little bit, but I don't know if that has anything to do with missing a free throw. You know more shots are gonna go up at the two guard, (so) if they're not shooting well, I'm not sure that always helps.''
With what is expected to be an angry and vengence-seeking Michigan team that MSU embarrassed back on Feb. 12th when the Spartans defeated the then-No. 4 ranked Wolverines, 75-52 at Breslin Center, Izzo chose to take some extra time to calm fears about Appling's recent lack of production.
"I'm meeting with Keith today and we're just gonna talk about where he thinks he is,'' Izzo continued. "Does he need some time off? Does he need some time to get in and shoot free throws, shoot jump shots and get his confidence back? I mean, you don't lose everything in two games. It doesn't happen that way. He's had two games where he played un-Keith-Appling-like. I think that's a tribute to him and how hard he plays 90 percent of the time.''
That still doesn't mean he doesn't expect a strong, if not stronger effort from the No. 9/10 Spartans (22-6, 11-4 Big Ten) when they face the once-again No. 4 ranked Wolverines (23-4, 10-4) at 4 p.m. (CBS) on Sunday at Crisler Center.
And going forward, Izzo seems to feel that this year's team will be much more battle-tested than some of his previous teams because of a conference schedule that has featured matchups like those in February, where the Spartans faced four ranked teams in six games.
"I hate to say it because somebody brought it up to me, that they were shocked to hear me say four, five games ago when we were rolling, I'm worried about a three-, four-game losing streak but I wasn't saying that to brace myself. I wasn't saying that to cover myself. I was saying that because it's the reality of what just about every team has gone through. We went 4-1 in one of our tough stretches. And now, we're 7-3 on those ranked team stretches so far. Let's not forget that. This was not a team picked to win the Big Ten.''
EXTRA TIME MEANS EXTRA WORK: With no game until Sunday's rematch with Michigan, Izzo said he will use the extra practice time to sure up some situations that cost MSU chances for more success during the Indiana and Ohio State games.
"We have to sure up our ball screen defense. We got exposed in one game. I still think I know the reasons why and I'll keep them to myself but they weren't all Keith Appling,'' he said
"(We have to) improve on the little things. The out-of-bounds plays cost (us) in the Indiana game when we gave up two baseline out-of-bounds (field goals) and once we didn't get it in and turned it over. That never happens to us.
"And the free throws. A lot of the dead ball situation stuff we have to refocus on and get a little better at. That's a good thing to work on this week because it's not real taxing and you can just get it done. So I think it's going to be a good week for us. We are off (Monday) and then we are going to have some time to really work on some things and hopefully dial it down and dial it up at the end of the week.
A LITTLE MORE PERSONALITY PLEASE: A couple of the things Izzo has screamed for for much of the season is stronger leadership and more emotion from his team.
So while he was pleased with Branden Dawson's anger when he was subbed out during the OSU game, he would be even more pleased if this group took on a little more of his own personality, the way former leaders like Mateen Cleaves, Travis Walton and Draymond Green did during their tenures in a Spartan uniform.
"I hope so. Not because I want them to be my personality, as much as I want basketball, I want games, I want playing good or playing bad to matter enough that a guy will fight, cry, care each and every day,'' he said. "You're damn right I'm looking for that. I really am looking for that. And this team is getting better.
"(Derrick) Nix getting upset the night of the Indiana game. You know what? I had to ask him what he was upset about because I didn't even know, but there's another good example. You come to the bench and you're mad at everybody. It had nothing to do with anybody on our team, it had nothing to do with anything that was done. It had to do with somebody else on the other side. I do like that. I do appreciate it."
UN-SOCIAL MEDIA: When asked if he thought the advent and continuing influence of social media is having an effect on today's college athletes, Izzo answered yes without much hesitation.
So in the case of a player like Appling who has probably taken a beating on Twitter over his performances against the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, Izzo admitted that this was new facet of coaching he was in the process of learning how to cultivate, while getting a handle on the good and bad the microscope of social media has brought to college athletics.
"They're 20 year-old college students. Does it effect them? Hell yes it effects them. It definitely effects them and that's the new challenge for coaches,'' he said. "We have to find a balance in that and we have to spend more time with them, letting them that know nobody died and its better. It's a different challenge than I've had the last couple years. A different challenge.''
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