December 3, 2013

Forget rank, it's still North Carolina

EAST LANSING - Don't think that just because the roles are reversed and Michigan State's men's basketball team will enter its Big Ten/ACC Challenge game with North Carolina as college basketball's top dog, that there will be some luster taken off the matchup.

The Tar Heels hold an 11-3 edge over MSU all time and more importantly, an 8-2 advantage over the Spartans during Tom Izzo's tenure as head coach..

"It's definitely different but I think our team focused in enough to where we understand that we can't get caught up in that and that we've just got to go out and play our game,'' said junior guard Travis Trice. "I know coach has talked and stressed all week how he owes them personally because they've knocked us out a couple of times in the tournament and I know for my class that I'm in, we lost to them our first game of the year. So we owe them and we want to kind of (want to get) back (at) them but we're going to approach every game like it's the same. We're not going to get too hyped for this game or put extra on this. But we want to win and play well in front of the home crowd.''

The Tar Heels, despite their record and what would be considered mediocre standing so far in their history are still a team you really want to beat and add to your regular season resume.

So don't let the idea that No. 1 MSU (7-0) will be facing a No. 25 North Carolina team (4-2) at 9 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN) that beat defending champion Louisville but lost to mid-major Alabama-Birmingham, fool you into thinking this Heels team may not be as good and respected as previous ones.

It's still North Carolina and it still carries a lot of weight. So the Spartans are not about to devalue the matchup.

"North Carolina is North Carolina,'' said junior wing Branden Dawson, the Spartans' leading rebounder at 10.3 boards a game. "They have a bunch of young guys but they're still a great team. They have athletic guys, they have (James Michael) McAdoo, the have (Brice) Johnson, they can jump. So we match up well with those guys.''

Besides history and previous lack of success as motivation, the Spartans will get a rare scheduling opportunity that brings an ACC team of North Carolina's caliber in front of the always rabid Izzone. That's motivation enough to attach an NCAA Tournament feel upon this contest.

"I think it's going to help us because there's been a couple of times where the Izzone has actually saved us some possessions,'' Trice said. "Where they're actually talking to the other team, getting them rattled and making them shoot before they have to or not to.''

While all of the side stories make this in intriguing matchup, the result that may serve this Spartan team best is that it's another chance for the team to get stronger in its ability to play against a high-caliber opponent looking to kick MSU of its top ranked perch.

"They're a great team and we're going to have to bring it regardless of who comes or how they play,'' Trice said.."

The hunted

A large portion of MSU's growth and success this season will depend on how they respond to being pushed by lesser teams looking to make a name for themselves in the national picture.

The Spartans have already faced stiff competition from teams and individuals on teams desperately looking to pad their early resumes before bubble time comes late in the season.

Columbia, Portland, Mount St. Mary's and Oklahoma have all done their parts in testing MSU's will and legitimacy as the nation's top team.

And while it's something the Spartans are cognizant off, it's still a role this group seems to be getting accustomed to early on. Much of that comfort in their new role will require MSU being the early aggressor instead of sitting back and waiting to be pushed by the opponent.

"We definitely understand that. We've actually seen that each and every game that we've played,'' said senior guard Keith Appling. "It's always been one guy that started the game off hot. We've just got to come in here prepared to hit them with the first punch because teams are coming after us, night in a night out and on each and every possession.

"So we're not looking down or up on anyone. We're just focusing on the task at hand to accomplish our goals as a team.''

Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine said there's one sure fire way of making sure you're not putting themselves in situations where the last 10 minutes of a game are tougher because of the details you didn't apply or adhere to early on. Much of that means not just surviving on talent but incorporating the intangibles that can decide wins and losses.

"The main focus is getting our defensive toughness back,'' Valentine said. "We haven't been rebounding like we've wanted to. We're letting teams rebound with us and Michigan State is known for big rebounding and toughness so we really just need to work on getting our identity back. You never know who you're going to run into or how they're going to play so being tough, that's a big statement in basketball. I think the tougher team wins so if we're not tough and we don't start playing Michigan State basketball you never know what can happen.

"You have to come out and play like you're the No. 1 team. You can't ever come lackadaisical and casual because teams are going to bring it against you every night. You have to come out with the mindset and the swagger that you're No. 1 and that you're that for a reason.''

Leadership roles

When you're the No. 1 team in the country, it helps when you have someone around who knows what it's like to be in that position, especially at the point guard spot.

So with former Spartan Mateen Cleaves at MSU's practices, Appling and Trice are getting a little more tutelage in how to be leaders from one of the best of all time to put on Spartan uniform.

And never shy about expressing his feelings about putting in the extra work, Cleaves has done so as a mentor during the early portion of this season.

"My message to the guys is always (about) setting the table for your teammates. Making the other guys out on the floor around you better,'' said Cleaves, the point guard on MSU's last national championship winner. "That should be your No. 1 focus. At this university and in this system, the ball is in the point guard's hands 95 percent of the time. So you can get a shot whenever you want to but it's about setting the table and getting everybody else involved, then you can pick and choose when to go.''

Cleaves also said that in setting the tone, you want to get that first punch in and set the tempo for the game.

"It's setting the tone - defending, getting up into your man, letting them know it's going to be 40 minutes of hell. That's what it is. Where going to get up into on defense and offensively, we're going to push the ball until we can't push it no more.

"And it's also about winning games. As a point guard you're the quarterback, so you're whole focus has to be about winning games and whatever comes in that course, whether you've got to defend, take a charge or make an extra pass to get somebody going to win a game. The stats will take care of themselves. That means you don't ever go into a game trying to get stats. Don't ever go into a game trying to get 20 points, 15 assists because that will happen through the course of trying to win. So that's always my message, is that you're whole focus should be about winning.''

No excuses

You may be talking to the wrong person if you're looking for sympathy in adjusting to the new foul-calling rules and you're consulting former Spartan Travis Walton.

"I think teams are still adjusting to it but for me I just don't really see the difference. Normally, they wouldn't just let you play on the perimeter and hack somebody and keep your hands on them anyway. So now I just think they're calling a couple more smaller, softer touches but I don't think it's that much of a difference.''

"When you play against the smaller teams it may be a little bit worse but in the bigger games, I haven't really seen the referee take control of the game. So nobody gets a pass.''

Walton, who is noted as one of MSU's best all-time defenders during his stay in East Lansing, where he led the program in steals in 2006-07 and 2008-09 is not buying into the idea that the new rules will ruin or slow the game.

"You've got to do your job, you've got to adjust. Because if you make excuses and don't adjust, you foul out. You have no choice.''

As a matter of fact, he feels he would have still thrived on the defensive end even with the focus on lessening the unneeded physical play that occurs on the perimeter.

"I think I could have. That was my job (playing defense),'' he said. "If I wanted to get on the court I had to play defense. I would have been all right.''

Sure, he has some reservations about the change in NCAA's change in philosophy but he said there's still no excuse for individuals and teams not to be able to adjust to the change.

"As you watch it, I don't think it's as bad as people think. I really don't . I just think a lot of people because they put so much emphasis on it early and coaches put so much emphasis on it early, got guys a little bit more afraid to press up. So you can use it as an excuse to say I don't want to press up because I don't want to get a foul but I think the referees, they kind of let you play a little bit more than what people think. They're just not allowing you to impede somebody's forward progress. So if you take a way the baby calls they call out on the wings and at the top, I think it's still the same.''

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