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November 9, 2013

Inside The Box Score: Activating Ellis

EAST LANSING - Alvin Ellis III and Tom Izzo feel good about the decision to remove the freshman's redshirt and activate him for the remainder of the season.

Ellis had a brief conversation with associate head coach Dwayne Stephens on the bench early in the second half about going in the game, and thereby foregoing the chance to bank this year of eligibility and save it for 2018.

"Are you sure this is what you want to do?" Stephens asked Ellis, before sending him to the scorer's table to check in.

"Absolutely," Ellis said.

Ellis, a 6-foot-4 wing from Matteson, Ill., had six points in seven minutes during Michigan State's 98-56 victory over McNeese State, Friday night at Breslin Center.


"We (Izzo and I) kind of talked about it two days ago in practice," Ellis said of the decision to redshirt. "We had a meeting. I talked to my parents about it and I decided I wasn't going to redshirt.

"(My parents) thought I should get my feet wet instead of taking a year off.

"It wasn't a tough decision. I knew I wanted to get out there on the court some time and play with the team."

Izzo was in favor of it.

"It's always up to the player," Izzo said of the decision to redshirt. "And I think Alvin wanted to do it. I had mixed feelings because there are times I wanted him to redshirt for his sake, and times not to redshirt for our sake."

Translation: Izzo believes redshirting is almost always a good thing for a projected 10th or 11th man, with an eye toward what that player could become five years from now.

However, Izzo and the No. 2-ranked Spartans are chasing a National Championship this year. Izzo knows there might be a situation at a key moment in the season when he might need Ellis to provide a role - for one game, one week or even one minute - that could help the Spartans toward their goals.

Izzo has advised players to redshirt in the past, and they have listened. Examples: Morris Peterson, Goran Suton, Alex Gauna, David Thomas, Idong Ibok.

Peterson and Suton became NCAA Tournament Regional MVPs.

Izzo kind of wanted Adam Ballinger to come back from a leg injury late in his freshman season of 1999, but Ballinger chose to redshirt. MSU made the Final Four in 1999 without Ballinger, and he contributed off the bench to the 2000 National Championship team.

In a forgotten piece of history, Izzo even considered redshirting Mateen Cleaves at the outset of the 1996-97 season, as Cleaves struggled to recover from back injuries sustained in a rollover accident during his official recruiting visit to Michigan.

This year's decision was entirely up to Ellis, and Izzo is happy to go along with it.

"He just wanted to be a part of this team and I don't blame him for that," Izzo said. "It's all good. Alvin can play. He's going to help us. The key is just going to be how many minutes he's going to get."

Ellis on his decision:

COMP's TAKE: Good decision for Michigan State.

I suspect that some of us are going to talk about what Ellis could have given the team as a fifth-year senior, when we get ready to tip off the 2017-18 season without him. Many of us did the same back in 1991 when Jud Heathcote lamented the four-year departure of defensive menace Ken Redfield. Jud believed Redfield could have been an NBA player if he had saved his senior year of eligibility for 1991. Without Redfield, much of MSU's defensive soul vanished in 1991 - one year after MSU emerged as a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed and Big Ten champion. The '91 squad, a preseason Top 5 team with Steve Smith, struggled to meet expectations, failed to win the Big Ten and went two-and-done in the NCAA Tournament.

And then there are cases such as that of Marquise Gray. Raw, athletic and marginally-skilled, the 6-foot-9 Gray redshirted in 2005 while the Spartans made a surprise run to the Final Four. Then he started 29 games as a redshirt freshman in '06, and 22 in '07. However, he eventually saw his role diminish during the 2009 run to the National Championship Game, with Suton, Delvon Roe, Draymond Green becoming stars.

As for Ellis, I suspect that Michigan State has about seven minutes available in most games for a third guard off the bench.

Let's play with the numbers:

The three guard positions deliver 120 minutes of playing time per game.

Pencil in Appling for 33 minutes per game again. Give Harris 34 per game. (There will be times when Harris plays 38 or more, but we're just talking averages here. Izzo will aim to give Appling and Harris one rest per half, resulting in about four minutes of rest per Big Ten game.)

Give Dawson 20 minutes a game at the wing, and maybe 8 to 10 more at the four.

So what about Valentine and Trice? That's the main question where Ellis is concerned.

With 87 minutes accounted for via our theoretical pencil, that leaves just 33 for Valentine and Trice combined.

Valentine and Trice are playing extremely well right now. They were two of the top three players on the court in the first half of Friday's racehorse victory over McNeese.

Valentine averaged 21 minutes a game last year. Do you pencil in Valentine for 23? If so, that leaves 10 for Trice - and we know he is going to play more than that.

Here is where game tempo comes into the equation.

Izzo wants to push the tempo as fast or faster than any time in his career. If done right, this results in fatigue, and guys playing fewer minutes. For instance, no one on the 2005 team averaged more than 26 minutes a game - not even future NBA players Alan Anderson, Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis. That team went 11 deep and ran, and ran, and ran. They also played full-court, man-to-man pressure, which won't be the case this year.

If the Spartans run like Izzo wants to this year, there will be no shame in Appling and Harris seeing their minutes dip below 33 per game.

Move a few more of Dawson's minutes to the four, and you can squeak in 20 minutes a game for Valentine and Trice, plus 4 to 6 minutes for Ellis or Russell Byrd.

Byrd shot well in the exhibition season. But he struggled with a pair of air balls and a turnover in the first half of Friday's game. That's just one game - but it was already too much like last year and the year before. Izzo isn't one to give up on a kid easily, but if the decision has been made to activate Ellis, then it's probably wise to invest any available minutes in Ellis.

Add it all up, and the prospect of playing six minutes a game might not seem like enough reason to activate Ellis. But there are two big-picture reasons to make him an active part of the everyday roster:

1. He provides injury insurance. Izzo teams almost always have a guy or two miss a handful of games with injuries. Combine that with recovery time, and Ellis might need to go from three minutes a game to 10 minutes a game at some point this season. If those three minutes per game can get Ellis properly oiled up on defense to log 10 solid minutes in a pinch for a road game at a Purdue or Wisconsin, that could be the difference between finishing first in the Big Ten with a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed, or second in the conference with a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed.

2. With Appling set to graduate, and Harris possibly headed to the NBA next year, it will help next year's transition to life without those two if Ellis gets a little bit of a head start this year.

Reason No. 1 is more important than Reason No. 2. Izzo wants all hands available to him as they chase the big dream in 2013-14.

"I'm going to try to do everything I can to help the team win games as far as bringing energy or playing good defense or whatever we need," Ellis said. "Whatever coach needs me to do."

On Friday, Ellis scored on a lay-up from Travis Trice, finishing a three-on-two break.

He also rattled in a 10-footer to give MSU a 92-46 lead, and then managed a pretty finger roll through garbage time traffic in the final minute.

The Rundown

  • Gary Harris scored a game-high 20 points in just 27 minutes of playing time (4 of 10 shooting from 3-point range).

    Harris had 15 at halftime

    In addition to shooting well from the perimeter, Harris also displayed, in short flashes, improved speed in the full court, and improved leaping ability and aggressiveness on the boards - two things Izzo said we would see from him this year, due to his renewed health.

    Harris had a career-high 10 rebounds. If he had logged more than just 27 minutes, it's a good bet that Harris would have added to his assist total (6) and made a push for a triple-double.

    "Gary actually missed some wide open shots that were halfway down, and he was mad about it," Izzo said.

  • Izzo was most pleased with the play of Trice and Dawson. Both players provided a major spark off the bench. Dawson didn't enter the game until the 16:34. He was removed front he starting lineup due to be being late for a team meeting.

    Dawson continues to play faster and higher above the rim than last year. He provided fireworks with back-to-back, commercial-grade dunks midway through the game.

    He also had a career-high five assists. Our favorite: From the post, he accepted a pass from Matt Costello, then dished a nice pass to the cutting Costello for a dunk.

    Later, Dawson made a steal, led the break, and unselfishly passed to Keith Appling for a lay-up.

    His behind-the-back pass attempt which sailed out of bounds for a turnovers yielded a folded-arms stare from Izzo. But Izzo didn't need to say anything. Dawson knew that one was ugly.

    Dawson finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He was active around the rim with tips and put-backs, keeping scoring chances alive, and just looking like the type of athletic matchup nightmare that will be a problem for opponents throughout the season.

    An improved handle enables him to put his speed to better use in the open court, and theoretically in the halfcourt (to be determined).

    Dawson missed a pair of awkward medium-range jumpers - fading backward on both.

    As for Trice, the junior combo guard went 3-of-4 from 3-point range in the first half and threw down an impressive, soaring, one-handed jam in transition from Denzel Valentine. Trice had 11 points at the break, marking the most impressive half of basketball thus far in his college career.

    Trice didn't score in the second half, going 0-for-3 after the break. Izzo grumbled about some guys playing the score rather than remaining focused in the final minutes. But overall, Izzo gave Trice a big thumbs-up.

    "Trice came in and was the difference in the first half," Izzo said.

  • MSU clubbed McNeese State on the glass, 66-29. MSU was big and aggressive on the glass in the early going, and McNeese seemed to concede rebounds the rest of the night.

  • McNeese State played zone defense in the first half. MSU jacked up 16 3-pointers in the first half, making eight of them. McNeese went man-to-man for most of the second half.

  • Izzo said he wanted to see his team do a better job on defense against dribble drives in this game (they'll see plenty of that vs. Kentucky on Tuesday). He thought his team was a bit better in that area on this night, but it was hard to judge, as McNeese State players often jacked up long-range shots just one or two passes into a possession. McNeese went 9-of-34 from 3-point range on the night.

    The Rest Of It

  • Valentine was excellent in a starting assignment, with 12 points (5-of-9 from the floor) and three terrific assists. His ability to lead the break after clearing the defensive glass is almost as big a plus for this team as his ability to run the lane, receive a pass, and then find the open man as a front court distributor. He's a rare commodity - and an absolute luxury off the bench.

  • Matt Costello had three blocked shots in the first half. He wasn't going against the best competition in the land, but he reacted quickly and athletically to log those rejections.

    Costello had 6 points on 3-of-4 shooting. Costello didn't score in the low post, but made himself available as a cutter, and finished with confidence and aggressiveness. Good game for the sophomore starting center.

  • Russell Byrd air balled a pair of 3-point attempts in the first half, sandwiched around a turnover on an errant entry pass. Then he attempted an ill-advised, step-back 3-pointer in the second half, drawing an exasperated stare from Izzo.

    Byrd was 5-of-6 from 3-point range in the exhibition games, rekindling belief that he might be able to carve out a regular role this year. But Byrd began the regular season too much like the past two years.

  • Alex Gauna quietly had another good game on the boards - collecting five rebounds in 12 minutes.

  • Gavin Schilling had five rebounds in 10 minutes, displaying ownership of his space and quick leaping ability. He also showed a strong, smart pivot foot in scoring down low on one occasion.

  • Adreian Payne has yet to find his face-up shooting touch this young season, but he made a nice, right-handed jump hook in the post, to go along with his usual assortment of dunks. He scored 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting and missed his lone 3-point attempt. He added 10 rebounds, to give MSU three players with double-doubles.

  • Appling stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. He was 1-of-3 from 3-point range.

  • Michigan State NEWS


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