Tom Izzo loves the basics: rebounding, toughness, defense. He's not particularly old by a coach's standards, yet he's always had a wise, grandfatherly way of speaking as if he's doling out life advice to a captive audience. His Yooper accent still occasionally slips in. He helps strangers get un-stuck from the snow.
There's no doubt Izzo is one of the best coaches in college basketball. But is he a bold coach?To this point in his coaching career, there's a case that he's the opposite. He's a conventional, old-school coach and a highly successful one. His most successful teams have won by taking care of the ball, by playing unselfishly, by crashing the boards, by defending and by diving after loose balls. There's little flash and an abundance of quiet substance to Michigan State basketball because of Izzo's influence.
It's not that Izzo has recruited players in the past who lack the ability to be flashy, either. Mr. Basketball Kelvin Torbert was known for being a high flyer in high school, as were McDonald's All-American Shannon Brown, Jason Richardson, Durrell Summers and others. But all of them adapted at MSU. They were still capable of the high-wire acts that helped them collect accolades in high school, but at Michigan State, they learned to play defense, they were required to earn minutes and, even if they didn't match their high school stardom in every case, they became key components on winning basketball teams.So what's the point in bringing up Izzo's philosophy, one that is unlikely to change? What if Izzo became just a bit more bold, a bit more imaginative with the roster he will have in place next season?
Because of a lofty preseason ranking, discipline problems, suspensions, transfers and under-performing seasons from key contributors, as well as the circus resulting from his own flirtation with the NBA, Izzo coached with more distractions last year than he ever has in his career.
The good news? That season is over. Two of the suspended players from a year ago are no longer around and two other players who had inconsistent seasons graduated. The players who remain and the recruiting class give Izzo, should he be in an experimental mood, options to change things up a bit should he choose.
Now, I'm not advocating a drastic shift away from the defensive roots that have defined Izzo's career, but a faster, more imaginative offense could potentially succeed for several reasons:
Draymond Green, Point Forward
There's no Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel or Kalin Lucas-style, ball-dominating point guard on this roster. The solution could be as simple, yet out of the box, as making Green a full-time point-forward.
His rebounding ability suggests he's a post player, but his incredible passing makes him one of the most versatile players in the country. Green was the best passer on the team last season, but with a senior point guard of Kalin Lucas's pedigree still in the fold, it was hard to commit to running the offense through Green as a point forward. With Lucas graduated, Green is now the clear leader of the team and there's also no clear cut replacement for Lucas. Keith Appling was a fantastic defensive player who played both guard spots last season, but is a scorer by trade. Recruit Travis Trice is a pure point guard, but scouting reports suggest his defense needs work, and as we've seen in the past, young players who struggle defensively sometimes have a rough go of it early on playing for Izzo. Valpo transfer Brandon Wood is also a combo guard who will help at the point but also will be looked at to replace the scoring MSU lost to graduation last year.
That uncertain point guard spot, along with Green's already proven court vision and passing ability, will give Izzo the chance to use his best returning player in a variety of ways to better take advantage of Green's diverse arsenal.
So ... why do that? Athletes, of course
With lanky wing recruits Brandan Kearney and Brandon Dawson coming in, along with forward Adriean Payne returning, Izzo will have a luxury he hasn't always had at Michigan State: a lot of length. All three are long-armed and athletic and all three can run the floor.
One of Green's greatest strengths is looking over the top from the perimeter to find cutters. He's great at throwing lobs as well. So with three players whose speed and length will certainly create matchup problems, running more, allowing Green to be the team's primary passer more and encouraging more motion in the offense are all things that might not have been staples of Michigan State teams of the past, but because of the influx of athleticism to the roster, Green could become an even more dangerous passer.
The defense won't suffer
Obviously, MSU plays at a faster pace, they could end up giving more points. But a faster pace will also lead to better shots for them on occasion before the opposing defense sets itself. And the same length and athleticism that could make them more dangerous on offense could also aid their ability to recover and block or bother shots on defense.
Is drastic change necessary in Izzo's philosophy? Of course not. But although the team's roster is relatively unproven at some key spots next season, Michigan State also has an opportunity to not only have depth next season, but several players with skillsets that allow them to play multiple positions. A slightly more bold or imaginative approach to offense might make things even more interesting.