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October 30, 2012EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo put his hand on Rollie Massimino's shoulder after yucking it up for a while between practices, Tuesday, and looked up at the Breslin Center rafters.
"They can say what they want about us, Rollie," Izzo said, "but there's one thing you and I have that they can never take away. It's one of those things."
He pointed at the National Championship banner.
"That's right," Massimino said with a laugh and a shrug.
Villanova has one in its rafters, thanks to the job Massimino did in 1985, piloting the Wildcats to perhaps the biggest upset in Final Four history when his team shocked Georgetown for the National Championship.
Now, the 77-year-old Massimino, head coach of MSU's opponent on Tuesday, Northwood (Fla.) University, is shooting for another National Championship. His Northwood team is ranked No. 1 in the preseason NAIA polls, and finished as the national runner-up last year.
His Seahawks will tip off against Michigan State at 7 p.m. at Breslin in the Spartans' exhibition season opener. Massimino's team will then travel to play at Kentucky on Thursday for his first return to Rupp Arena since beating the Hoyas at that venue in the 1985 National Championship game.
"That's what we do," Massimino said of Northwood's ambitious October schedule. "We have played Maryland, Villanova, Hofstra, Fordham, Florida, Miami (in the past). And I just called Tommy up and he said 'Great.'"
"I've always respected him," Izzo said of Massimino. "I loved him when he coached, I loved the way he is so when he asked me I said, 'Great.' And that's why we are playing them. And he has a pretty good team."
Massimino is 171-37 during his tenure at Northwood, a program he started seven years ago. He is 687-428 overall. His team is led by super-quick, 5-foot-2 point guard Tyrone Davis, who earned NAIA All-America honors a year ago, and five international players.
Izzo is eager to see his No. 14-ranked Spartans in action.
"I'm excited to see what they do in front of the public, whether we panic, whether we turn it over a lot," Izzo said. "I'm anxious to see how this team plays. We have experience and yet inexperience."
Freshman Earns Starting Spot
True freshman Gary Harris, a 2012 McDonald's All-America, will start at shooting guard for the Spartans, along with Keith Appling at point guard, Branden Dawson at wing forward, Derrick Nix at center and Adreian Payne at power forward.
Harris is the first Indiana Mr. Basketball to ever sign with Michigan State.
"Not always are you as good as your billing but what he has done in practice has been earned and not given," Izzo said.
Izzo cautions that Harris has yet to do anything in a game. That all starts tonight, albeit in an exhibition game.
What has Harris done to earn the starting job?
"Just about everything," Izzo said. "He has played offense, he has played defense, he has rebounded the ball and he has picked up everything you could give him.
"He is good in the press. He is very good defensively. He is very good at being under control when he drives."
Harris had a terrific reputation as a sprinting, high-flying scorer out of Fishers (Ind.) Hamilton Southeastern High School. His shooting was sometimes erratic. But he has shot much better than Izzo expected.
"Still question his perimeter shooting at times, yet he makes shots," Izzo said.
Harris's shooting is ahead of schedule, in theory, due to focusing on basketball throughout the summer and fall for the first time in his life. Harris was a star wide receiver in high school.
"Some people have said that," Izzo said. "And there might be some truth to that. He has shot it pretty well."
'We're A Little Bit Screwed Up'
Izzo likes the effort his team has given in practice this month. But there are still a lot of unknowns heading into tonight.
"We're a little bit screwed up, yet," Izzo said. "You have guys like Alex Gauna, or Russell Byrd, who is a third-year guy but hasn't played and hasn't even practiced half the time because of the injury. You have B.J. (Dawson) who missed seven months so it's hard to say what he's going to do for a while. And then you have the three freshmen who are going to play a lot.
"Some of that could be basketball follies in some respects but at the same time I love the way this team has practiced. If they play like they've practiced, they're going to be good. And then as we grow, we could end up real good.
"If they don't, if leadership doesn't lift each other when things are getting bad then we'll be an average-to-good team.
"I'm anxious to see how they compete. We have gone so hard. My biggest concern is now that the coaches are out of it, who's going to motivate? The chemistry has been phenomenal with this team. The leadership now is really when it rears its head. They don't let coaches on the floor now. It's going to take players to do that and that's what I'm really anxious to see how we respond to that."
Offense Through Appling
Michigan State enjoyed a romp to a share of the Big Ten title last year, plus a Big Ten Tournament championship and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament thanks to the unconventional success of having a point power forward of sorts in Draymond Green. Michigan State's offense ran through Green, especially at the end of the shot clock. Green became a first-team All-America and a second-round NBA Draft choice.
Now, without Green, the offense will return to a more conventional, traditional format with things running through point guard Keith Appling. Izzo says the junior from Detroit Pershing is ready to run the attack.
"I think the big thing is Keith is now six- or eight-times better than he was last year," Izzo said. "Usually you run your offense through your point guard. We can run a lot more things through Keith. The ball will be in his hands at the end of a shot clock a little bit more when last year it was in DayDay's hands. That's one way we will try to adjust to the loss of DayDay."
Nix And Payne Together
Izzo has indicated that a substitution rotation possibly involving either Nix or Payne off the bench might be best for the team at some point in the season. But MSU will begin tonight with Nix and Payne in the lineup together. They were never on the court together last year, but instead subbed in for one another and played equal minutes at the five.
Now, with Payne expanding his game to play the four, Nix and Payne can play together. MSU's best lineup is with Payne and Nix on the court at the same time. However, both players have had conditioning issues in the past. Izzo plans to play a more frenetic pace this year, which will lead to quicker substitutions.
Nix and Payne may finish games together quite often this year. But they will each need to get proper breathers. Izzo won't want both of them resting at the same time. There will be occasions when he will want one or the other on the court, for stability reasons.
"That's why you brought Morris Peterson off the bench (as a junior in 1999) so that you will have some continuity in your subbing," Izzo said. "We start them (Nix and Payne) together and practice them a lot together. The down side is I don't know how much we'll be able to play them together. They are going to probably play 10 or 12 minutes together. I'm hoping it will be 15 or 18 but it probably won't be just because of the way it goes.
"That will be a little bit more of a job for my staff, subbing guys, because we are going to play 10 guys. I think we will be able to play 10 with a lot more efficiency than we did last year with eight or nine."
Good Day For Gauna
Sophomore center Alex Gauna turned in some nice finishing maneuvers during practice on Tuesday. Gauna is beginning to earn more compliments from Izzo as a reserve big man, vying for playing time behind Payne and Nix.
"He is," Izzo said, when asked if Gauna is gaining confidence. "He's playing harder. We'll see if it continues. He's had a couple of great practices in a row. It's just a matter of getting that engine going. The thing is sometimes it's a little cold and doesn't get going. He made some phenomenal plays in the last few days and practiced pretty well tonight."
Gauna and freshman Matt Costello give Izzo a pair of interesting options in the low post.
"Costello has been pretty good," Izzo said. "He just is a little bit more robotic but tough. I mean he might be the toughest of the four. He is a big guy that loves to play, and guys like that are almost as illegal as two-guards that play defense. Big guys aren't supposed to love to play. If you get them to like to play, you're making progress. But this guy loves the game. He is in here all the time."
Costello suffered a back injury during practice on Tuesday after enduring a nasty fall. Izzo said Costello is questionable for tonight's game due to the injury.
Byrd and Dawson have been taking reps at power forward as well.
"We are going to have to play some with B.J. or Russell at the four because teams will go small," Izzo said. "There are certain lineups we won't play together. We won't play Nix and Costello (together) much, unless we hit a Kansas with two bigs. We aren't going to play a Gauna and a Costello (together) or a Gauna and Nix (together). So we are still going to need a four man who can cover some people against a lot of teams. We'll go small sometimes as well as big."
The Dawson Card
Dawson could be the long-term solution at power forward. He has the quickness to guard mismatch fours at one end, and racehorse past many others with strong face-up quickness at the other. Starting Dawson at the four could give MSU the ability to bring Payne off the bench and get the type of staggered, regular rotation that Izzo prefers.
If Dawson moves to the four at some point, who would start at the three? Freshman Denzel Valentine and improved sophomore Brandan Kearney could become candidates. How they play, beginning with tonight's exhibition, will begin to shape those decisions.
For now, Dawson is still working to come back from an ACL injury which he sustained last March and sidelined him for the NCAA Tournament and almost the entire off-season. Dawson has been practicing with a knee brace. He said on Monday the decision hasn't been made whether or not he will play with it on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, sophomore combo guard Travis Trice is coming back from a mysterious summer sickness which sidelined him for seven weeks and caused him to lose more than 15 pounds.
Trice shot well on Monday but hasn't yet regained the level of sharp consistency that made him a pleasant surprise as a true freshman 12 months ago.
"It's sad that he (Trice) missed (the summer)," Izzo said. "Hopefully we were going to push him to 180 and suddenly he is 150 and now he has battled back to 170."
"Right now I don't think their conditioning will be a major factor," he said of Trice and Dawson. "I don't think it will matter as much because I think we are going to play so many guys and keep running guys in. Not just in the exhibition games, I plan on doing that during the season. Sometimes that works, but sometimes you get an injury or two or sometimes a guy doesn't pan out in front of the public that could change."
Notes & Quotes
"A lot," he said. "Evaluating. People that have watched us practice, meaning NBA people or other coaches, have said, 'You almost have to sub by energy level, because you have enough good players.' So I'm going to see if I can sub by energy level. If guys are coming out and not going back in for a while it's not going to be because of a missed shot, you can bet it's going to be because of energy level.
"It's hard when you have tried to pace yourself for a while and now you have to turn it on the whole team."
"Hard. Pretty efficient. Tough," he said. "We have pounded each other. We have gone one against two, we have moved people around a lot, we have competed. I just think we have practiced at a different pace, and hard."
Massimino was an assistant under Daly at the University of Pennsylvania in 1972 and '73. Daly retired in Florida in Massimino's neighborhood. Daly passed away in 2009.
"He was one of my best friends," Massimino said. "He lived right around the corner. We'd go out all the time. He would come to our practices quite often. He would be here tonight (at Breslin), God bless him, if he wasn't where he is, up in heaven."
As for the Pistons hat, Massimino said he wasn't wearing it just because he was in the state of Michigan, where Daly notched his greatest conquests.
"I wear something of Chuck Daly's every day," Massimino said. "I wear it all the time. I wear it a lot. It's pretty dirty."
Izzo remembers the formal spread, complete with fine china and wine, to go with pasta and a signature sauce.
Massimino remembers the Wildcats getting beaten by a skinny sophomore named Steve Smith.
"I remember that game," Massimino said. "Smith played great. He had 42 or 44 (actually 34, including 22 in the second half). They just isolated him out there and he went to the basket."
Michigan State won, 70-63.
Izzo ate with Massimino and Massimino's son, Tommy Massimino. Jud didn't eat with them.
"Jud came in all upset," Massimino said with a laugh. "This was our third home game (in the NIT) and he said, 'They (the NIT schedule makers) want you to go to New York and not us!'"
The Spartans made it to the NIT semifinals, which was a slightly bigger deal back then than it is now. MSU lost to Saint Louis in the semifinals.
As for pre-game or post-game meals, Massimino was asked if he expected Izzo to return the favor from 1989.
"Yeah, I asked him for some restaurant recommendations," Massimino said.
But first, there is this business about getting the 2012-13 season started - Izzo's 18th as a head coach and Massimino's 37th.
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