CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Tom Izzo indicated after Michigan State's 65-59 loss to Miami on Wednesday night that the Spartans will alter their starting lineup and substitution approach once and for all.
Early season inconsistency with Adreian Payne at the power forward position may have reached a seasonal turning point Tuesday night as the Spartans struggled with ball screen defense and other breakdowns in a 67-59 loss at Miami.
"I think you're seeing a time when the two-big thing is going to change a little bit here," Izzo said. "Maybe my experiment with two bigs is over."
Payne and Derrick Nix split time at center last year, in tag-team fashion as the Spartans won a share of the Big Ten title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and Izzo's 10th trip to the Sweet 16.
This year, Izzo hoped to play both big men at the same time and create matchup advantages on the interior. Izzo had trouble keeping both bigs on the court against smaller lineups of mid-major opponents earlier this season. He expected the twosome to function more seamlessly in this game against an equally-big Miami team. Instead, MSU was out-played on the interior while also lagging in the quickness department.
Payne finished with 4 points and Derrick Nix had 3.
Izzo moved Branden Dawson to the four in the final minutes. Look for Dawson to move to power forward in the starting lineup for Saturday's game against Nicholls State. The last time Izzo tried to start Dawson at the four, Gary Harris went down with a shoulder injury in the opening minute of a game against Boise State. Izzo quickly had to patch up his wing shortages with Dawson back at the three.
But with Harris and Travis Trice back, Izzo should have enough personnel on the perimeter to begin a new long-term experiment with Dawson at the four. But Dawson will need to learn some of the intricacies of the position. For instance, he struggled in the high post of MSU's zone offense against Oakland University last week.
Inside-out passing is also a favored Izzo staple which Dawson will need to master if he is to move to the four.
On Wednesday night, Miami took a page out of Izzo's wish list and nailed 3-pointers off of crisp inside-out looks and Hurricane fans stormed the court in what ESPN analysts called "a program win" for second-year head coach Jim Laranaga.
Laranaga was also head coach at Bowling Green when his Falcons stunned preseason top five-ranked Michigan State and senior Steve Smith by double digits early in the 1990-91 season. MSU didn't play a road game at a Mid-American Conference school for the next 21 years.
After Laranaga's George Mason team upset the Spartans in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, en route to Mason's historic run to the Final Four, Izzo promised that his program would return to brass tacks discipline. Izzo's edict set the table for two trips to the Final Four in 2009 and 2010.
This time, Laranaga's defeat of Michigan State is going to result in more alterations within the Spartan program, as Izzo hangs onto hope that this year's preseason Top 15 team can begin living up to expectations at some point.
"We are going to change our lineup a little bit," Izzo said. "We are just struggling to play with the two bigs in there. We'll get better. We have Harris and Trice back now."
Gary Harris and Travis Trice returned to practice for the first time in weeks on Monday. Both came off the bench on Wednesday. Harris is likely headed back to the starting lineup, and Trice - who played just 12 minutes - is likely headed back to a 20-plus-minutes-per-game role which includes time as a back-up point guard and reserve shooting guard.
"That was a hard game to coach," Izzo said. "I didn't know how to approach it, and I probably didn't do a great job. It's going to get better once we get our rotation down. I still like where I think we've got a chance to go, but I sure don't like it right now."
Harris returned from a shoulder sprain and scored 12 points in 25 minutes. Trice was back from a concussion and had nine points.
Even so, the Spartans' offense sputtered, and their point total was a season low.
"It's going to heal because we're going to get healthy," Izzo said. "There were bright spots with those two guys back. I thought Nix held his own and did some things pretty well, yet we missed some shots early."
Despite Harris's 12 points, Izzo saw areas in which his freshman could have been more productive.
"Our best shooter, Gary Harris, struggled," Izzo said. "His first time back, we're going to have some of that.
"We have to get a rotation going, as I keep saying and saying and saying. Trice struggled a little bit with his conditioning, but that's bound to be the case when you have almost three weeks without doing anything."
Miami Played Up
Miami shot a blistering 9-of-15 from 3-point range. Michigan State was just 5-of-11 from the foul line.
"Three-point shooting ended up being their biggest strength tonight, shooting about 56 percent," Izzo said. "We did a good job on the offensive boards. Harris went in and got some. Valentine went in and got some. We just have to get more production out of Payne and Dawson. Dawson started out kind of shaky and then played better in the second half but we are just not getting enough production out of those two guys."
With MSU trailing 52-45 with 7:39 left, Payne missed a dunk, squandering a fine no-look feed from Valentine off MSU's pass weave.
"A big key to the game was when Payne missed a dunk and could have cut it to 5, and then they go down and make a 3 as the horn is going off.
"And we foul two guys that are shooting in the 50 percents and they made every free throw," Izzo said.
Miami shot 16-of-18 from the foul line on a memorable night for the Canes' program.
Keith Appling had 15 points for the Spartans (5-2), who lost for the first time since the season opener against Connecticut.
Senior Trey McKinney Jones scored a career-high 18 points for the Hurricanes (4-1), who held Michigan State without a field goal for a pivotal 5 1/2-minute stretch in the second half.
Scott penetrated easily at the outset and scored nine consecutive points to help Miami take the lead.
Miami improved to 4-1. Its only loss came to Florida Golf Coast with Scott - the Canes' best player - out as part of a six-game NCAA suspension, which began in March.
"We're a much better basketball team with Durand Scott back," Larranaga said.
Miami was excellent with ball screen defense and hedge/help rotations - often looking more like an Izzo team than Izzo's team.
One difference: Miami double-teamed the post. They didn't double-team on the catch, but waited for Nix to dribble in the post, and then shot double-teams at him and rotated responsibly to shooters.
Choreography and adherence to scouting report particulars were excellent. The Canes played defense like a Big Ten squad in mid-season form. They held MSU to just 40 percent shooting on the night.
Defensive Lapses Cost MSU
Appling said he and Izzo came to the mutual understanding after the game that he took a few plays off, defensively, against the Hurricanes.
Appling played just 33 minutes, down from the 40, 38 and 38 he played last week. But his intensity level seemed to suffer a bit.
"Appling, we wore him out again," Izzo said. "He didn't have as good a game and he was going against some good guards."
When Payne didn't get out on Miami guard Shane Larkin as part of basic ball screen defense, and watched Larkin drain yet another 3-pointer as part of a 14-5 run, Izzo fumed. That 3-pointer, on Payne's watch, gave Miami a 44-38 and helped change the tone of the game.
Payne made that error while playing power forward, and it fueled Izzo's frustration with an expiring experiment.
"The penetration, we just did not cover the ball screens like we wanted to, like we worked on, so that put a lot of pressure on our guards," Izzo said. "We are going to have to work on that."
Need To 'Play Harder'
The Spartans cut down on their turnovers - they had 12 after totaling 20 in each of the past two games - but they still struggled with their half-court offense. They stayed in the game only because they had 16 offensive rebounds.
"We've got to get a get a couple of guys playing harder, and we've got to get a couple of guys playing better," Izzo said.
The Spartans trailed 48-42 with 10 minutes left, then went without a basket until Branden Dawson scored to cut the deficit to 57-47 with 4:55 left.
"I think there were a couple of different keys to this game," Izzo said. "One of them was the three scramble loose ball situations, and they hit three 3-pointers in the first half and all of them were on plays like that. They just scrambled, picked it up and fired it up and made it. On two of the three, we had the ball in our hands, so give them credit on that.
"In the second half we missed some easy shots."
Trice and Harris hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to give the Spartans their biggest lead, 28-23, and they were up 31-27 at halftime.
"We took a few punches from Michigan State," Larranaga said. "We needed to fight back, and we did."
McKinney Jones hit from 3-point range for a 51-42 Miami lead, and made another 3 to beat the shot clock and make it 55-45.
"Every one of my 3s came from a pass," he said. "My teammates were just finding me in the right spot."
Scott's two free throws gave the Hurricanes their biggest lead at 57-45, and thereafter Michigan State got no closer than eight points.
"It's not the highlight of our season," Johnson said. "It was a heck of a game, but we have to continue to get better."
McKinney Jones went 5 for 7 from 3-point range, including a basket that capped a 14-2 run to start the second half that put them ahead 41-33.
The lead grew to 57-45, and they went 8 for 8 from the free throw line over the final 2:11 to seal the victory.
Miami held the ball in the final seconds to run out the clock, and students then stormed the court, hoisting at least one player and the team mascot onto their shoulders and chanting, "A-C-C." The game was part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
"I was thinking, 'This is what college basketball is all about,'" Larranaga said. "In fact, what I was really thinking was, 'This is what being a college student is all about.' Your greatest memories don't come in the classroom. They come at events like this that you'll remember years down the road."
The Hurricanes' second-year coach has worked hard to boost attendance, dispatching his players to dormitories to distribute pizza and chicken wings.
But Larranaga knows winning is the best way to create a bandwagon.
"This was November's highlight," he said. "Now we need to get some December highlights."