To be Michigan State’s head basketball coach Tom Izzo in the month of December is to never be satisfied. On Saturday afternoon, the Spartans defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions by a final score of 80-64 to improve the team’s record to 9-2 overall, despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation so far.
Michigan State is one of only three Big Ten teams to go 2-0 during the December round of conference games. (Ohio State and Illinois are the other two.) The Spartans are ranked in the top-20 and the teams only losses so far have come to teams currently ranked in the top-10 (Kansas and Baylor).
All in all, things are going pretty well for a team that started the season unranked and was not picked to finish in the top-four of the conference. But, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the way Coach Izzo started his postgame press conference.
“We knew this was going to be a little bit of a tougher day,” Izzo said. “I was disappointed in our start.”
Coach Izzo felt that the team then gathered themselves in the middle portion of the game, as the Spartans built a lead that at one point swelled to 21 points. However, for the fourth game in a row, Michigan State allowed their opponent to rally in the final minutes.
“At the 10-minute mark, we had a timeout and I told them this is where we’ve got to grow now, 19 up,” Izzo said. “All of a sudden it was a bad shot, a bad turnover and a bad defensive play, and (the lead was) cut down (to 12 points).”
As for the turnovers, the Spartans committed 11 on the day, which is the second smallest total on the season, trailing only the 10-turnover performance against Eastern Michigan. Coach Izzo still feels that there is room for improvement here.
“I think we’re trying to do too much instead of letting the game come to us,” Izzo said. “We are trying to make 50 or 40 percent passes instead of 70, 80 and 90 percent passes.”
As one would expect from a double-digit conference win, however, Coach Izzo did see a lot of positives.
“There’s enough to be upset about, but there’s enough to feel good about,” Izzo said. “I mean, we are getting better. Each day we’re getting a little better....We got a little better today.
“We have a long way to go because we’re not an ultra-talented team,” Izzo continued. “We still have some youth that are going to make some mistakes. But we’re going to get better. I really believe that.”
Coach Izzo even went so far as to make a joke about MSU’s consistent struggle with turnovers.
“You guys (the media) should be more positive,” he said. “We haven’t stepped out of bounds in two games.”
Several Spartan players had a good outing on Saturday. Senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. posted a double-double by scoring 12 points and securing 13 boards. Coach Izzo likes what he sees so far in the seven-footer.
“I don’t see him (Bingham) just jogging up and down the floor right now,” Izzo said. “I see a better-conditioned and a stronger Marcus Bingham...His best basketball is ahead of him. I just hope that it is ahead next game.”
Coach Izzo also mentioned that there might be a few more weapons remaining in Bingham’s arsenal.
“He’s got a lethal jump hook that he doesn’t throw very often,” Izzo said. “Marcus Bingham’s got a great left-hand jump hook that you guys have never seen.”
Izzo also commented that Bingham is currently shooting over 75 percent from the free throw line, which makes him an even bigger weapon in the post.
Bingham was credited with only three blocks, but his length bothered Penn State’s shooters. Bingham clearly is taking pride in his defense. He mentioned during the postgame interviews that one of his goals is to win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award. So far, he is well on his way.
But Bingham isn’t the only Spartan who is taking pride on the defensive end. It is a team-wide effort.
“Our defense has done a good job,” Bingham said following the game. “All of the guys set goals before every game, and we are doing a good job of holding those goals to a standard. Everyone was taking the initiative to lock somebody down... we take defense seriously here.”
Junior point guard Tyson Walker agrees. In fact, for him, defense is personal.
“This is a team where we’re more excited on defense than we are about offense, which is one of the craziest things ever,” Walker said. “I feel like it’s a good thing because offense is always going to come. But, with defense, that’s something that you have to take pride in, in order to do it well.
“Growing up it was like ‘Never let someone get a scholarship off of you,’” Walker continued. “So just having that mindset of playing defense makes me not want people to score on me. Now, if people score on you, they can get paid. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be somebody’s big game.”
Overall, Walker posted yet another solid performance, scoring 10 points, posting nine assists and three steals, while only committing one turnover. Walker also played a large role in igniting Michigan State’s transition offense. The Spartans were credited with 31 fast-break points (versus only three fast-break points for Penn State).
“I think he’s just getting a feel for things,” Izzo said about Walker.
Walker even seemed more comfortable and relaxed during postgame interviews. In fact, a word that kept coming up with Walker was, “fun.”
“This is one of the best times that I have had,” Walker said. “We’re winning. I have never been ranked before... for me, it’s a big deal.”
Senior guard and captain Gabe Brown is also having fun and feeling a real connection with his teammates.
“This probably is one of the closest teams that I have been on,” Brown said. “Right now we are just taking it day by day and just having fun... this team is very different. We connect. We go everywhere with each other. We eat together. We work out together. Ever since two months ago we have been like brothers.”
Going forward, the Spartans now have a full nine days off before they play Oakland at Little Caesars Arena on Dec. 21. When I asked the players what they felt the team needed to work on the most, the players gave surprisingly similar answers.
“I feel like this time we can work on our jump shots a little bit more,” Walker said. “We’re shooting well, but we can shoot way better.”
“Individually, we need to work on shooting,” Brown said. “I feel like that’s one big aspect that we want to keep on capitalizing on is shooting. But I feel like the main thing is coming in and watching film because we are a team that turns the ball over a lot of times.”
Bingham thinks the time off will help the team get better in several areas.
“(The break) will help us with rest, practice and preparation,” Bingham said. “We can clean up some of the stuff that we messed up on tonight, including the turnovers.”
Bingham went on to mention that the team has to run in practice when they commit turnovers.
“We know the consequences,” Bingham said about the turnovers.
Stay tuned to The Only Colors for continuing coverage of Michigan State basketball.