January 31, 2014

Hoop Feed: Toughness on the rise

EAST LANSING - The formerly super-stressed-out Tom Izzo wore an easy smile after practice on Thursday.

Stealing a tough, overtime victory on the road prior to a non-conference trip to New York City apparently can do that for you.

Last week at this time, Izzo was bothered about Branden Dawson's sudden hand injury, and an undermanned date with Michigan, followed by a trip to Iowa City.

The pain of losing to Michigan was eased by the 71-69 victory at Iowa - perhaps more than we could have imagined, judging by Izzo's sunny disposition at the Breslin Center auxiliary gym on Thursday.

Maybe his birthday had something to do with it too, although he said he has never been one to celebrate birthdays or New Year's Days. Izzo turned 59 on Thursday.

Michigan State (18-2) heads into Saturday's game against Georgetown (3 p.m., Fox1) ranked No. 6 in the USA Today poll, and with an extra bounce in its step, if Thursday's practice was any indication.

"Today, I thought we took a step for the better," Izzo said after Thursday's practice. "Last week, I think we were just trying to survive. Today, we talked about a lot of things. Keith, Gary and Denzel can start attacking more. I think we're holding the ball too much, too many shot-clock violations, but we had so many guys at different positions at Iowa, it was a little difficult. But I didn't think we were aggressive enough. We talked about that and we did a little better job of that today."

The combination of being an underdog for a change, and winning as an underdog, and doing it with role players making big plays, such as Russell Byrd's huge 3-pointer in overtime and Matt Costello's first double-double, added some spring to the Spartans on Thursday.

"It galvanizes you," Izzo said. "We had a day off (Wednesday). Usually the day after a day off is a sluggish practice. I think we had our best practice in a month. Is it because guys are a little energized? Is it because guys got to play? Is it because Gary and Keith are a little fresher because we gave them some time off last week? I don't know what the reason is, but I wish I could bottle it.

"There is getting to be a confidence. One thing about playing a lot of guys, and guys getting to take more ownership in the team, is that guys that never got to play are now playing, and they feel more a part of it."

The victory moved Michigan State to 8-1 in the Big Ten and keeps the Spartans on Michigan's heels heading into the second half of the conference season. If the Spartans come back to win the Big Ten, Tuesday's victory at Iowa may be viewed as a crucial step.

"Jud said when I'm done I'll look back and this will be one of the bigger games we've won in my career, and maybe he's right," Izzo said. "It was big because so many people were involved in it, and there was a feeling of accomplishing something.

"When you're in a program where unless you get to a Final Four you don't feel like you have accomplished anything, I think it was good for our guys to know we were an underdog going in. There was a feeling of accomplishment for one game. You all focused in, you all worked together, we did not play great, some of our best players did not have their best games, and we still found a way to win. I think good teams have to find a way to win.

"It's helped our chemistry. We've had some guys step up. We have had some guys learn how to have to be the man a little bit. We got more out of Costello. It's not just the subs. The starters have to do more."

As for the smile, Izzo deadpanned: "I'm smiling because I'm tired."

Payne Update

Adreian Payne was back in a practice uniform and went through some light shooting drills, Thursday.

"He actually did some shooting a little bit in practice," Izzo said. "He went through a little bit of a workout, shooting the ball. He hasn't done any running."

But Payne watched the majority of the practice from the sidelines. On one occasion, Izzo turned to Payne during practice and yelled, "Hang in there, A.P.!"

"He's ornery," Izzo said of Payne. "He doesn't like it. I told him the nice thing about this injury is that when he is good to go, he's going to be good to go. So I have to make sure he is physically, wind-wise ready to go. That's a long process. Nobody likes riding a bike or swimming in a pool, although he's a good swimmer.

"He's making progress. We're probably not going to practice him this week. If everything keeps going, maybe Monday we'll start practicing him some.

"He worked out a hair yesterday; that's going well. And B.J. has been good.

"And Travis is getting back. If your head dies, the body goes. Both of our heads (Travis Trice and Keith Appling) were half-dead. Now they're coming back and I feel good about where they're at."

In the meantime, reserves are having to play more minutes, and role-playing starters are having to come to the forefront - such as Matt Costello have had to try to take on a starring role. The group, in all, has had to get tougher.

"I think we have learned how to survive," Izzo said. "We have become better defensively because of it. We have put another emphasis on rebounding because of it. We have to gang-defend and gang-rebound because we don't have certain bodies, and that's helped us. And at the end of the day, if you look around at some of the teams that are struggling - are they playing as good of defense? That's a big part of it.

"I think the last couple of games we have started to impose some toughness again," Izzo added. "The rebounding in that game (at Iowa) was better, against a bigger team. We're at least making some strides now. I say that after two games and a good practice, but we have a long way to go.

"We have great team chemistry but no on-the-floor chemistry. There is nothing smooth about what we do, but I think we're going to be able to get that back, I really do."

Izzo Part 2:

Appling Update

Keith Appling didn't miss any practice time on Thursday. In fact, he stayed longer for an extra 3-point shooting session. This after going 2-for-4 from 3-point range against Iowa, including a big one in overtime.

"He looked like death last week," Izzo said. "He has just been way better."

But Appling doesn't feel all that much better.

"Do I feel like I'm anywhere near 100 percent? Oh no," Appling said." Not even close. But we still have games to be played so I have to suck it up and continue to fight through it."

How close can he get to 100 percent before the end of the season?

"I don't know," he said. " Who knows? It depends on how many breaks we get between games. I just have to continue doing my job icing and staying off my feet as much as I can, but all that other stuff, I can't control."

With that being said, would he be better off with the weekend off, considering this was the weekend that the Big Ten schedule makers slated to be the Spartans' first bye week of the conference season?

"(Laughing), I would rather have the weekend off, but Madison Square is such an exciting place to play and I would never want to miss out on an opportunity to play there," he said. "I think it's worth not having the weekend off."

Kaminski Still Starting?

Izzo said he is considering changing the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski has seen his shooting accuracy decrease for the past two games after moving into the starting lineup. Kaminski, who barged into the playing group due to hot shooting from 3-point range, is just 2-of-10 from long range as a starter over the past two games.

Kaminski played 19 minutes against Iowa and 14 against Michigan, after stepping into the starting lineup when Dawson went down.

"He hasn't shot the ball very well after shooting the ball very well for a year and a half," Izzo said. "Sometimes starting a guy isn't a good idea, because they're nervous enough. I think that has something to do with it."

So Kaminski could be headed back to a reserve role?

"Maybe," Izzo said. "Not sure yet, but maybe yet.

"They (Georgetown) are bigger. We could go (bigger) with Gauna. We could go smaller. I have a lot of options."

New Uniforms for NYC

Michigan State will wear a special bronze uniform for Saturday's game. MSU is one of seven Nike schools that will wear special Nike Hyper Elite Dominance uniforms at some point this season.

Michigan State's uniform is a combination of the old 1979 script STATE logo, along with the new bronze accent color, with the Spartan head logo on the side of the shorts.

Michigan State, along with Nike's six other basketball flagship schools - Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse and Oregon - will sport special uniforms for upcoming games.

"I saw the prototype, but I haven't seen the real McCoy yet," Izzo said. "For a guy that doesn't like all the things, I like it. You know why I like it? Because I come down and the players are fired up. If a uniform makes them a feel good and gives me a little more leverage to get after them, I'm cool with that."

Byrd wore the bronze shoes in practice on Thursday.

Byrd More Proud Of Defense

Two days after the biggest shot of his career and possibly the biggest shot of the season, Byrd is more proud of other contributions he is making, aside from the pivotal overtime 3-pointer he made at Iowa.

"The shot was great, but I think I've been doing other things that are more important, like playing defense, and communicating," Byrd said.

But the 3 felt good.

"I was like, 'Wait, did I just do that?'" Byrd said. "I think one shot can give you a lot of confidence.

"Confidence is a funny thing," Izzo said. "Did you see him (Byrd) dunking it (in practice today)? He's healthy. The poor kid couldn't even touch the bottom of the net for two years.

"So I don't think it's the one shot. I think it's the shot, the feeling, the health, more aggressive, more confident, even in his defense because he can move his feet better. I mean the guy has been through hell. What can that bring, I don't know. But I'm going to find out."

Byrd can feel the team getting stronger.

"I think it will be good for our team down the road," he said of reserves gaining experience and beginning to improve. "Guys are getting good experience and hopefully we get all our guys back at the right time and make a deep run."

Byrd's clutch 3-pointer is drawing comparisons to Tim Bograkos' game-winning shot at Kentucky in 2002. Byrd has heard all about it, including from Bograkos himself.

"Yeah, I saw him today," Byrd said. "He gave me a big hug. I'm glad to be in his company. He's a Spartan legend."

What's With That Zone Offense?

Michigan State didn't have a great offensive night against Iowa, but the offense became even more stagnant when the Hawkeyes dabbled with a zone defense.

Iowa had success with sporadic use of zone defense in regulation, and then opted to play zone defense in over time. The zone produced two shot clock violations in MSU's first five possessions of the extra period. MSU made two 3-pointers in overtime, but both were prayers at the end of the shot clock - one by Byrd and one by Appling.

"It was a little bit of everything," Izzo said of MSU's problems with Iowa's zone defense. "We didn't have the right guys in the middle to attack it. One thing we missed was B.J. in the middle because he has gotten to be a better passer, and he has gotten a little more active in there. We had some guys in there that weren't that way and that created a little bit of a problem.

"I blame me more. I just have to get more guys some time in there. We put in a few more wrinkles in our zone offense today because I think we'll get zoned in the next game.

"There were two things I thought we did a poor job of in that game that we are normally good at: we never attacked that press. I didn't want to get into a running game once I got into foul trouble and tired. But that was terrible. We did a bad job of that, too."

Appling on the zone offense and facing Georgetown:

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