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February 8, 2014

Izzo: Obama 'was pretty cool'

EAST LANSING - Tom Izzo probably felt a little better about his team's injury struggles on Friday when he learned that the most powerful man in the free world is aware of Spartan health issues, and sympathetic.

Izzo and Michigan State head football coach Mark Dantonio met briefly with President Barack Obama on campus, Friday afternoon. Obama was at Michigan State to sign the new farm bill.

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 500 people at MSU's McPhail Equine Performance Center, including Izzo and Dantonio.

After Obama was introduced on Thursday by northern Michigan orchard farmer Ben LaCross - brother-in-law of SpartanMag member "Diehardspartan" - the president greeted the crowd with "Hello, Spartans! Go green!"

The crowd's response of "Go white!" brought a smile to Obama's face.

Obama also gave shout-outs to Izzo and Dantonio.

The two Spartan coaches were then taken to a small adjacent room, where they met with Obama a few minutes after he signed the bill.

"We met for a little while, and just talked about a few things, and there were only a few us in the room," Izzo said. "It was pretty cool. He was pretty cool."

Izzo last met with Obama in 2011 when the president attended Michigan State's game against North Carolina on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson aircraft carrier.

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Obama has mentioned Izzo by name in past years when filling out his NCAA Tournament bracket, which has become a light photo and video opportunity for the president each March.

Obama is known for following pro and college basketball as a hobby, the way Richard Nixon followed the Redskins, Ronald Reagan followed the Cubs, Bill Clinton the Razorbacks and George W. Bush the Rangers.

"I was amazed," Izzo said of Obama. "I mean he knew about (Adreian) Payne and our injuries and our other guys. I'm sure he got briefed a little bit, but I heard last week when we played Iowa he was trying to watch the game rather than watching what his people wanted him to watch, and I can appreciate that. I told him that. I told him I've got a lot of people wanting me to do certain things too, but it's nice to do what you enjoy doing."

Izzo says there are days in his daily grind when he'd rather shoot the bull about football than talk basketball. Izzo said he could relate that there are probably days when Obama would like to spend five minutes talking hoops while taking time out from presidential duties.

"He was good," Izzo said. "He asked me what the rest of the year looked like, and I told him.

"I just ended it with, 'I'd like to come visit you at your house.'"

That type of visit is reserved for the National Champion.

Obama played some pick-up ball with North Carolina's team prior to becoming president, several years ago. Obama has less time for that kind of thing these days, and a few more gray hairs.

"But I tell you what, he does look like he is in good enough shape to play," Izzo said. "He loves basketball. He knew a lot about Mark's team too but he loves basketball. He was great. Mark and I enjoyed it."

Izzo was asked if it's flattering that the standing U.S. president knows who he is.

"My secretary asked me that and I guess part of it is flattering, but you have to remember we were with him out at the aircraft carrier and I do know he watches, and we've been in enough Final Fours," Izzo said. "He follows. But I promised we would move up a little more in his bracket this year if we get everybody healthy."

Speaking of Health …

Senior point guard Keith Appling was held out of practice again on Friday with his wrist injury. He also missed practice on Wednesday, and Thursday's game against Penn State. Appling was in practice gear on Friday, but didn't participate.

Izzo didn't dismiss the possibility that Appling could play in Sunday's game at Wisconsin (1 p.m., CBS).

"Hopefully we will have Keith for some of it, but we'll question mark that," Izzo said. "So we'll have to get Alvin Ellis more ready, maybe move Russell Byrd back to some more three instead of playing him at the four, and play musical chairs and see what we can come up with. We'll just do what we've got to do to win a game, steal the game and get the hell out of Dodge."

Dawson Conditioning Well

  • Izzo says Branden Dawson is doing well while recovering from his broken hand.

    "He's been running hard, I mean real hard," Izzo said. 'In fact my strength coach is so pleased with him he told me to hug him. I said, 'not yet.'"

    Dawson has a history of losing his fire, sometimes inexplicably, on the basketball court. Izzo doesn't want to compliment him with his off-court workouts just yet, lest the flame might burn out.

    "But he has been working his butt off," Izzo said. "I'm proud of B.J."

    Dawson wasn't a good shooter prior to the injury. His ball skills will likely be messier when he comes back at the end of the month. When the comeback happens, Izzo says he wants Dawson to be in the best shape of his career, so he can accentuate his power and athleticism.

    Izzo texted Dawson late Thursday night, proud of Dawson for leading on the bench a little bit during the victory over Penn State.

    "I said, 'You were awesome tonight,'" Izzo said. "He got after some people that were dogging it early. He stuck with some people, made some suggestions."

    Kaminski Re-Focused?

    MSU's Kenny Kaminski was 7-of-14 from 3-point range in the four games prior to the first start of his career, against Michigan on Jan. 25. He started that day in place of the injured Dawson.

    Then, as a starter against the Wolverines and Iowa Hawkeyes, Kaminski was a combined 1-of-8 from deep, scoring just 2 and 5 points in those games.

    Kaminski was pulled from the starting lineup for last weekend's loss at Georgetown, but came off the bench with a resharpened shooting eye. The redshirt freshman power forward went 3-of-6 from beyond the arc against the Hoyas and had 10 points on the game.

    Then Kaminski stayed hot with a dazzling 5-of-6 display from long range on Thursday against Penn State, going 7-of-9 overall for a team-high 19 points.

    "In games that he was starting, he was shooting like 13 percent (actually 16) up until yesterday," Izzo said. "I think he re-focused in."

    The shot is back for Kaminski, who leads the team with 51 percent accuracy from 3-point range for the season. But what about his defense?

    "He is improving some," Izzo said. "He is a good enough athlete to do it, too. He reminds me of Morris (Peterson); when guys never had that as a priority, or a secondary, or third or fourth, it's harder to learn how to grit your teeth and get it done. But I do think it matters to him more, and that's a start."

    The Rest Of It ...

  • Wisconsin (18-5 and 5-5 in the Big Ten) has lost three straight home games, and five of its last seven. The Badgers got back to .500 in league play with a 75-63 victory at Illinois on Tuesday. Still, the Badgers are desperate to break their home losing streak.

    "I don't care, we're desperate too," Izzo said. "We're playing for a championship. The way I look at it, we're real desperate right now. This is a big road game for us."

  • Travis Trice played a career-high 34 minutes during Thursday's victory over Penn State. He made only one field goal attempt, but played a clean game with seven assists and no turnovers in leading the team in Appling's absence.

    Trice went down with a twisted knee or ankle or something late in the game, but Izzo turned his back to him as he looked to the bench. Another injury was unacceptable. Trice bounced back quickly.

    "I felt great after the game and I felt great today," Trice said.

    He said he had to approach the game differently as the starter, and he liked it.

    "You don't worry about anything because you know you're going to have to play the whole game," Trice said. "I have to limit some of the dumb fouls I might have, or some of the chances, and really be solid.

    "When you're starting, you know you are going to be in there the whole time. And with Keith not playing, I know I'm not going to come out unless I'm tired. It changes your mentality."

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