March 19, 2012

Sweet 16: MSU has a 'pressing' engagement

EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo and Draymond Green expect to face much different Louisville team than the one Michigan State faced in 2009 when Green was a freshman and the Spartans earned a tough, hard fought 64-52 victory.

That Cardinals' team was loaded with NBA-quality players and didn't press as much as this year's team coached by Rick Pitino is expected to do when the West Region's top-seeded Spartans (29-7) face Louisville (28-9) at 7:47 p.m. (TBS) Thursday in Phoenix in the Sweet 16.

The last time the two teams met in NCAA Tournament play in the regional final in Indianapolis, the Spartans came out on top en route to a spot in the National Championship game against North Carolina.

''We attacked it and we didn't turn it over early, so they backed off it. I think they have a different kind of team now,'' Izzo said. "They had four pros on that team. They could beat you other ways. This team does try to beat you off their defense a little bit more than that team did in looking back.''

And the press is paying big dividends for this season's No. 4 seeded Louisville team.

This Cardinals' team presses - a lot- and is forcing 16 turnovers and collecting nine steals per contest.

"This is not the greatest shooting Louisville team, so they score a lot of points off their press, off their defense. I think they'll press us a lot,'' Izzo said of the Cardinals, who shoot a respectable 42.5 percent from the floor. "We know (Pitinio's) going to press. We know they're going to play a lot of zone.''

To say the Spartans are going to have to take care of the ball is one of the biggest understatements of the tourney as far as MSU's continued quest to get to a seventh Final Four under Izzo's tenure.

MSU enters Thursday's game minus-0.3 in turnover margin and has averaged 11.5 miscues a game in the tournament so far.

Offensively, the game features a battle of each team's top scorers, which happen to be forwards. Green leads MSU with 16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals, while the Cardinals are anchored by senior forward Kyle Kuric's 13 points. Sophomore center Gorgui Dieng is the Cards' top rebounder and blocks leader, at 9.1 and 3.1, respectively, while junior guard Peyton Siva is tops in assists at 5.5 a game.

Green and sophomore point guard Keith Appling share top assists honors, with both averaging 3.9 a game for a Spartan team looking to extend its five game win streak.

"I know they're really going to get after it defensively. That's one thing they did when I did play my freshman year. They got after it defensively,'' Green said. "They're really going to push the tempo. That's not going to change. That's his philosophy.

"If I can take anything away from that '09 game it's going to be knowing the tempo of the game because they're going to try to push it. Last time they thought they were going to run us out the gym, we ran them out the gym,'' Green said. "We have to make sure we're conscious of the tempo and make sure it plays into our hands and not into theirs.''

BIG MAN COMBINATION PLATE: The increasing attention on the play of centers Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne is gathering steam with each half MSU plays in the NCAA Tournament.

Their upgraded play and rise on opponent's depth charts started during the Big Ten Tournament.

Since then, both have proven to be headaches for opponents in the post - and in different ways.

"You've got one more athletic, (who) steps out a little bit more. You've got one bruiser inside. They've been a great complement to each other,'' Izzo said. "I think sustaining things is what I would like to see out of those two guys. For a while (Sunday) Nix was good offensively and average defensively. Payne was good defensively and average offensively. I would like to get them to where they were the night before, they were good offensively and defensively and both rebounded well. (On Sunday) Payne rebounded well, Nix didn't, but Nix was so good offensively.

"But it's nice to be able to go back and forth.''

The duo will enter Thursday night averaging a combined 21 points and 10 rebounds.

While Nix brings the bulk, deft passing skills and a nice scoring touch around the basket, Payne provides more athleticism and mobility and is able to step out and pop 10-12-foot jumpers.

Both run the floor well enough to keep other teams post players occupied and both are getting better in a rotation that not only diversifies MSU's offense but forces other teams to alter how they defend MSU in the post.

Their play has made MSU a tougher team to defend under the basket. And Nix's decision-making out of the post has put an even bigger smile on Izzo's face in terms of measuring the 6-foot-9 big man's progress.

"Nix is our second best passer. Out of the post, he might be our best passer,'' Izzo said. "Day Day can do things both in the post and open floor.

"What we've struggled with a little bit now is everybody starts playing you differently and finding that fine line when you pass out. He's almost got to make decisions like a point guard the way we've been going in there, the faith we have in him.''

APPLING OF MY EYES: While some of Keith Appling's shooting woes have been well documented this season after his switch to the point, what hasn't received enough attention is how the sophomore combo guard has handled his responsibilities during key moments of the Spartans' success.

In Sunday's tough, grind-it-out 65-61 victory over Rick Majerus' St. Louis team, the Detroit native recovered from slow first half start to hit a key 3-pointer down the stretch that gave MSU a seven-point lead and basically sealed the game with 1:34 left.

"Maybe it is the adjustment of learning how to run a team and shoot, all the different things you got to do,'' Izzo said. "That shot will come back. It's just been a little flat this year for some reason. When he shoots it, when he's thinking about it, he's got great arch and makes a lot of shots. When he's not, it flattens out a little bit. But what he is, he's a competitor. He's a tough nut, he really is. I think because of that he'll even grow from (Sunday) night.''

In two NCAA tourney games leading up to Thursday's matchup with the Cardinals, the 6-foot-1 sophomore has totaled 29 points on 12-of-25 shooting (0.48 percent), handed out 6 assists and pulled down 6 rebounds. But more importantly, he has committed just 3 turnovers.

Against a pressing and trapping Louisville team, he will have to be at his ball-handling best if the Spartans expect to advance to the Elite 8.

But Green thinks if Louisville decides to play off Appling like St. Louis did it would bode well for the Spartans' chances in the long run.

"I just dare somebody to play him like Saint Louis did,'' Green said. "If they play him like that, he's definitely going to knock down shots. He knocked down four or five jump shots Sunday. That's really what took us to getting the win, that was the difference in the game.''

ACCELERATED EDUCATION: The half-court, grind it out game played by St. Louis after the uptempo style enforced by Long Island Brooklyn has given MSU a rare glimpse in how to play against two totally different styles of play.

While you would expect upperclassmen like Green, Thornton, Brandon Wood not to have too many problems adjusting, the lessons for freshmen like Travis Trice and Brandon Kearney became invaluable ones, especially for Kearney, who went to the bench against the Billikens after picking up a foul in the second half visibly frustrated and upset.

It became one of those key teaching moments shared between a coach and one of his young players and hopefully something Kearney can learn from as MSU moves forward in what will surely be more intensified situations.

''I think he was frustrated because I think he thought he was getting fouled in there. You get a couple cheap fouls. You know, that's part of things. Guys got to grow up and learn how to handle that. For the most part he handles it pretty well.''

For Izzo, Sunday game was the best kind of teacher because it forced his players to adapt in a real game as opposed to just watching film or reacting to created practice situations.

"I don't think everybody handled it quite right,'' Izzo said. "We were concerned without B.J. that Evans was going to post us up. I think that hurt Kearney and Wood. He threw some guys around in there. But that's going to help us down the road now and definitely down the road a year from now.''

As a matter of fact, the performances and responses by both Kearney and Trice as they adjust to basketball life on a bigger stage.

"You know, in Trice and Kearney, they're both real critical I think to us right now,'' Izzo said. "Trice is not where he was before his groin injury. He said to me (Sunday) night, 'God, I felt so confident, and now I just feel like I'm not there.' His wind is just coming back from that time off. But he is getting better. I don't think it was anything but maybe a little bit of nervousness Sunday by both of 'em on maybe why they struggled. Like I said, that's pretty normal, pretty natural when you get into that kind of setting, because they made some mistakes on switches and on things like that that they haven't made all year. It wasn't really as much effort related as it was thinking related.

"I think yesterday was a great day, as I told you after, because we were able to have a learning day and still win. So I think both those guys will be great mentally and hopefully well physically as far as being able to do what they need to do to help us win.''

Green looked at the entire game as great teaching moment for the Spartans young backcourt.

I think they really grew up. To fight through some adversity at halftime, everybody responded, particularly B. K. and Travis,'' Green said. "They didn't score or anything like that, but they made their presence felt on the game. They were very solid defensively. Trice did a better job of controlling of tempo when he was at the point.

"And Keith as well. Keith started off struggling with the way they were playing him. He got his head together and was able to make some things happen for us as. I think overall not even just our young guys, everybody grew up from that game (Sunday). I think it can help us down the road.''

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