A photo of a younger Tom Izzo was appropriate for this piece.
By Adam Biggers
Two wins this season have convinced me that the 12th-ranked Michigan State Spartans have truly returned to Tom Izzo basketball: Saturday's 58-48 win at third-ranked Ohio State and Feb. 5's 64-54 "revenge" win over Michigan, which is now ranked 22nd.
It's no secret, the 2010-11 season -- even more now, in hindsight -- was about as close to a disaster as the Spartans have had under Izzo, who is in his 17th year as Spartans head coach. Not only was the leadership absent, but the physical brand that Spartans spectators have grown accustomed to was nowhere to be found. You could dig through the stats, comparing the numbers (which I have), but a quick look at the records says it all: The Spartans went 9-9 in 2010-11, and now sit at 9-3 with six games to play.
To win in the Big Ten, a team has to be physical. Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State were tough last year, and ended the season as the league's top teams. The Spartans are playing just as, if not more, physical as any team in the Big Ten through this season's first 12 games. And they will finish the year as one of the league's best teams, barring an unforeseen meltdown.
Izzo has said that this year's team is one of the tougher teams he's had in some time. When I heard that, a couple thoughts went through my mind.
1.) Was it "coach talk?" I don't think Izzo would try to paint a pretty picture, but after the debacle from a year ago, I could see the coach being a bit more optimistic than he's been in the past. Nothing wrong with that.
2.) Maybe the Spartans, who routinely are among the nation's top rebounders, are really as tough as Izzo says. The second part of that thought was "That could be scary."
The win over the Wolverines on Feb. 5 showed that this year's team was mentally tough, especially after the Spartans dropped their three previous meetings with their in-state rival. Green out-rebounded Michigan himself, 16-15. That showed me that there was at least one senior that lived and died the rivalry, and didn't want his last game against the Wolverines to be a loss.
Senior leadership is present, even if it's just Green and Austin Thornton, who has surprised me with his play. He deserves the minutes he gets. Although he has considerably less attempts than most of the top 10, Thornton is the Big Ten's best 3-point shooter, statistically, shooting 12-for-21 (.571 percent). His energy and hustle have proven valuable, too.
The emergence of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix certainly hasn't hurt, either. Since Goran Suton, Paul Davis, Drew Naymick, Delvon Roe and Raymar Morgan, I've been looking for a Spartans player with a keen sense on how to rebound and facilitate the offense -- Payne and Nix, although different from the aforementioned, have done similar jobs as those in the mentioned group.
Sure, the Spartans are shooting from the perimeter a bit too much this year, evidenced by a 3-point rate of 29 percent. But they're making up for it by playing trademark Izzo ball, evidenced by a +11 rebound per-game margin and 3.9 blocks per game, third-best in the Big Ten.
If you have longed for the days of grind-it-out Spartans teams, and want to put last season far, far, far back in the rear-view mirror, sit back and enjoy the ride -- the 2011-12 Spartans could prove to be a vintage team under Izzo.
“I don’t feel any different than I felt a month ago, or six months ago: Ohio State’s the best team in the league,” Izzo said after Saturday's win. “But on this given day we were able to get them.”
Izzo may not feel any different. But the majority of Spartans followers would probably disagree with him: Michigan State, which is looking like an Izzo team of old, is the best in the league until proven otherwise, or a loss March 4 to the Buckeyes -- whichever comes first.