College Basketball Nation: Tom Izzo

Can Branden Dawson do it all?

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
For Michigan State, last season was The Season. I mean, just look at that starting five.

Gary Harris, one of the nation's best freshmen in 2012-13 -- a truly one-and-done-level shooting guard who stayed for Year 2 -- was playing better on both ends of the floor. After morphing from an athletic shot-blocker into a perimeter threat late in 2012-13, Adreian Payne lived up to all expectation: He was the best all-around big man in the country. Keith Appling, a senior point guard with three tumultuous, character-building years at his back, was posting the most efficient offensive numbers of his life. Tom Izzo had flexibility in his fifth starter/subs spots, with guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine and forward Matt Costello. And Branden Dawson was doing what he does best: Rim-running, rebounding, cleaning everything up.

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTo reach its usual lofty standards in 2014-15, Michigan State will need Branden Dawson to shine.
That was the Michigan State we saw early in the season, the one everybody thought could and would win the national title. You know what happened next. Appling winced through a shoulder injury that grounded his early efficiency into dust. Payne battled a foot problem that kept him off the court for six of his team's first eight Big Ten games. On Jan. 23, near the end of Payne's convalescence, Dawson, angry with himself during a team tape session, slammed his hand into a table. The hand broke, and Dawson missed the next nine games as it healed.

On Feb. 1, Michigan State went to Madison Square Garden to play a late-season nonconference game against Georgetown. The Spartans lost 64-60 to a mediocre Hoyas group; they couldn't have looked less like the November ideal.

The situation improved by March. Everyone was back on the floor, and the Spartans were a popular national title pick. But Appling never got back to the slick stuff he flashed early in the season. The Spartans fell prey to Connecticut's chaotic backcourt attack in the Elite Eight. With all that talent and experience, it was hard to feel like bad luck -- injuries, in other words -- caused the Spartans to miss their shot.

The disappointment might make it easy to forget why, even after an injury-plagued season, with at least three key players still recovering from issues so late into the year, so many people took Michigan State to win the title anyway. It's exactly what makes the 2014-15 campaign a fascinating one for Michigan State: Branden Dawson was awesome.

After returning from injury -- with a cast still on his hand -- Dawson played the best and most consistent basketball of his career. In MSU's six postseason games before the Connecticut loss, including three in their victorious Big Ten tournament run, Dawson shot 100-of-138 from the field. He grabbed just over eight rebounds per game. His average offensive rating was 152.3. Against Harvard, in the third round of the NCAA tournament, he scored 26 points on 12-of-15 from the field. Against Virginia, he had 24 on 9-of-16, and shot 6-of-8 from the line. Michigan State couldn't have won either game without him.

This is the kind of postseason production that gets you on the cover of regional college sports preview magazines. It's the kind that gets you onto the preseason All-Big Ten team. Keep that up, the thinking goes, only do a lot more of it. Presto: You're a star.

The only problem? Dawson's production came from within a well-populated galaxy of talent. His usage rate rarely climbed above 20 percent. Plays were almost never called for him. To wit: According to Synergy, Dawson's top three possession types -- the kinds of situations in which he would end Michigan State's possessions with a shot -- came on cuts (23.2 percent), transition (23.2 percent) and offensive rebounds/put backs (22.1 percent). His total number of post-ups all of last season … actually, wait, take a guess. You ready? Thirty-two.

Which brings us to 2014-15, and why Michigan State is fascinating in both the positive and negative sense of the term. By sheer fact of personnel attrition, Dawson now inherits the go-to mantle on a team that, at its best, could spread the ball between at least three reliable one-on-one scorers last season. Meanwhile, the team around him now is totally different. Trice and Valentine will take the backcourt responsibilities, and Costello will likely take over a primary frontcourt role.

Trice is a great shooter, and Valentine might be the best -- or at least the most entertaining -- passer in the country. But make no mistake: Dawson will have to be one of the nation's best players for the 2014-15 Spartans to reach their typically high standards for success.

He's done it before, on a team with so much talent an Elite Eight appearance felt like a letdown. Can Dawson do it in 2014-15, under drastically different circumstances? And if he doesn't, how good can Michigan State really be?

3-point shot: Kentucky loading up

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3

Andy Katz discusses Kentucky's aggressive scheduling, Doug Wojcik's job status, and the current top coaching trio.
video Editor's note: Over five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 3: Michigan State's Tom Izzo. On Thursday, we will release No. 2 and No. 1.

Typically, time and distance confer a sense of inevitability. The further we get from March and April, the more the team that won the national title was always going to win the national title, no matter how unlikely it was at the time.

In the case of the 2014 Connecticut Huskies, the opposite is true. At the time, UConn was impressive but not really shocking; even as a No. 7 seed, they never felt like impossible underdogs. They were still UConn, after all. The threat was always acknowledged. Now, though, three months' distance somehow affords us a wider, fuller view. And really, the whole thing is startling.

Consider it. In six straight games, UConn survived red-hot St. Joe's; handled four-loss, No. 2-seeded Villanova; outlasted hobbled but dangerous No. 3-seed Iowa State; knocked out a Michigan State team that was seeded No. 4; smothered clear, overall favorite Florida in the Final Four; and somehow managed to down obscenely talented, suddenly indestructible Kentucky, which had downed Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville and Wisconsin en route to the final.

The turning point -- the point at which UConn morphed from a dangerous early-round upstart into a genuine national title threat -- was its game against Michigan State.

To many, this author included, it was inconceivable that the Spartans would miss the Final Four. They had everything on their side: Talent, experience, size, and finally, after an injury-plagued Big Ten campaign, health.

More than anything, though, they had Tom Izzo.

To continue reading this story, click here.

3-point shot: Izzo's optimism

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20

In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on Michigan State's offseason and Tom Izzo's optimism, Izzo's preference to schedule games against military academies and how Georgia State is building its team.
Editor's note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 13: VCU's Shaka Smart. On Thursday, we release No. 12.

It begins again each year. Ed McLaughlin anticipates the frenzy that will commence once Virginia Commonwealth’s season ends.

Powerful programs will contact Shaka Smart -- the courtesy calls between athletic directors is a practice of the past -- and attempt to lure the 37-year-old coach to a school with more money in the bank and more eyeballs locked onto their teams via lucrative TV deals.

[+] EnlargeTreveon Graham, Ed McLaughlin
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsAD Ed McLaughlin, right, is focused on making VCU a good program, not on the other schools that come after head coach Shaka Smart.
It’s never a pleasant moment for McLaughlin, VCU’s athletics director -- or his colleagues in similar positions -- who must deal with the courtship of his program’s young leader. But he endures it with the knowledge that his school has unique advantages.

“[Smart] really feels like he can win here,” McLaughlin said. “I know we've invested a lot. … I'm with him every day. That relationship is so important.”

The postseason pursuit of rising stars and proven veterans on the collegiate coaching circuit is often viewed as a one-sided effort. Some major-conference college or NBA franchise promises a multimillion-dollar contract and an opportunity to work with the best players in the country. The employers who await their decisions often seem slighted within the conversation and powerless in the process. But many have channeled their inner Joni Mitchell and reminded tempted coaches about the things they'd leave behind.

Jamie Pollard, athletics director at Iowa State, doesn't want to lose Fred Hoiberg. Pollard also knows, however, that Hoiberg won’t find an NBA city that will show him the love that Ames, his hometown, does all year. And what pro team will match his 10-year contract? Eric Sexton understands that Gregg Marshall will be courted. That's why Wichita State's AD puts Marshall's team on charters to games and continues to increase his pay (Marshall makes $1.75 million). Everything about Marshall's gig is high-major.

A few months ago, Tennessee reportedly chased Louisiana Tech's Michael White. But the school's commitment to White and the program -- the university recently converted an old gym into a practice facility -- made it hard to leave for Knoxville, especially after a 29-win season suggested that the Bulldogs could snatch their first NCAA tourney bid since 1991 nine months from now.

“The reality is that the money is at such a different level [for some high-major jobs] that at some point, you can't compete,” said Tommy McClelland, Louisiana Tech's athletics director. “But we want him to be here. He's wanted. He's truly wanted here. There's something to be said about being wanted.”

Added White: “I've had some tough decisions to make but as we all know, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.”

Money in the NBA is plenty green, and both the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers wanted Tom Izzo. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis couldn't compete with the money. But the NBA can't match Izzo's relationships on the East Lansing campus.

That's why the underdogs have won so many fights for top candidates.

“It's really about having a vision for having the first-class student-athlete experience and providing coaches with all of the tools that they need, from their perspective, to accomplish what they want to do in an environment that is conducive to them being successful,” Sexton said. “That's what we want to do is provide as many tools as we can, understanding that we're not a BCS school … [but] most of our coaches would say they want for very little.”

Every season, McLaughlin deals with rumors about Smart. But rather than stress, he focuses on the efforts that VCU has made to keep him in Richmond.

Last year, Smart rejected UCLA's overtures, even though the Bruins, it seems, have everything that any college coach would crave.

You can recruit in one of America's richest talent pools. You have access to a strong fan base and a collection of wealthy boosters. Big salaries and an even bigger spotlight. But Smart said no -- or yes, depending on your perspective.

McLaughlin views Smart's choice to stay as an affirmation of the assets he has at VCU. Under Smart, the Rams have gone from mid-major player to perennial Atlantic 10 contender with solid national TV exposure and a fleet of high-level recruits. In March, the school announced plans for a 60,000-square foot practice facility with a $25 million price tag.

“It shows [Smart] how invested we are,” McLaughlin said.

And they must be. Facility upgrades are no longer luxuries. Schools without them are missing a key element that affects both the team and its recruiting efforts.

[+] EnlargeFred Hoiberg
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsFred Hoiberg will continue to draw NBA interest, but his stature in Ames won't be matched in any NBA city.
Iowa State turned to the Sukup family, which runs the largest family-owned grain bin manufacturing company in the world, when it wanted a practice facility. Steve Sukup said his family recognized the value of the $8 million facility, which is called the Sukup Basketball Complex, and wanted to give the Cyclones a proper headquarters. Plus, they want to keep Hoiberg.

“To be able to keep a coach of that class and recruit athletes, you're going to have to have a facility that matches what he needs to get it done,” Sukup said.

Hoiberg has fans that fill Hilton Coliseum every winter and open their wallets when necessary. He's the most popular man in town and he recently received a $600,000 raise -- more than the university's president makes in a year -- as part of a 10-year deal. Pollard, however, isn't foolish. He believes, like everyone else, that Hoiberg will ultimately leave Ames to take an NBA job. Right now, he just wants to make sure his coach has everything he wants and needs.

“Do I think he would coach in the NBA? I think yes, at some point he will,” Pollard said. “Just look at how he runs our team. He runs it like it's an NBA team. I think he's wired to do that but at this stage in his life with his young kids and his family situation, I think he's in the right place for him personally at this point and time. So I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it.”

Izzo is in a similar situation in East Lansing. He's just the second head coach that the program has had since 1976. Signs of the adoration that Spartans supporters have for Izzo? Take your pick. There was the pep rally in a Detroit mall that was packed with Spartans fans prior to a 2009 Final Four run. And the news conference when Izzo chose to stay at MSU after he was entertained by the Cleveland Cavaliers a few years ago turned into more of a celebration.

Hollis knows that Michigan State can't keep Izzo from the NBA if it's just about money. But it's about much more for Izzo.

“In college, a coach has the potential to have a bigger impact on individuals than you do in pro ball,” said Hollis, who was Izzo's college roommate. “That's something that drives him. The college game is better suited for that type of personality. … Tom is remarkable at pushing and loving at the same time. That's a trait that's very good for college basketball.”

They are not na´ve. They know that they can't stop destiny. If a coach really wants another job, he'll take it. There's not much they can do about that.

But they can continue to build their respective programs and make their decision more difficult.

“It certainly makes the week after the NCAA tournament,” McLaughlin said, “busy.”
In the coming days, college standouts will announce that they’re either going to the NBA or returning to school for another year. This is a critical time for college players. Their futures could be altered -- for better or worse -- based on their decisions.

Some coaches are in similar positions. In their case, most would be wise to stay in school.

That doesn’t stop the speculation, though.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackFlorida coach Billy Donovan had a change of heart in 2007 when he accepted the job to coach the Orlando Magic and then returned to the Gators.
John Calipari has tried to kill recent rumors that he'll leave Kentucky to take a Lakers job that isn't even vacant. There has also been some buzz about Kevin Ollie’s future now that the former NBA journeyman has won an NCAA title as Connecticut’s coach.

More rumors about college coaches potentially turning pro emerged Monday when Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman announced his retirement. Various reports have pegged Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, Florida's Billy Donovan and Michigan State's Tom Izzo as possible targets.

ESPN NBA reporter Marc Stein tweeted earlier today: “Been discussing Izzo/Hoiberg for some time as candidates to replace Adelman, but here's a new name I'm told interests Wolves: Billy Donovan.”

That’s not surprising.

All three coaches have been tied to the NBA in the past. Izzo famously rejected the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offer a few years back following an extensive courtship. Before Hoiberg returned to lead his alma mater, he was an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves and an NBA veteran. Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic job a few years ago, and then he changed his mind days later.

They’re all intriguing candidates who may or may not have any interest in the opening. Being “pursued” doesn't mean you're really “linked” to a job; you might ask Kate Upton out, but that doesn't mean you're dating her.

But there’s certainly interest from Minnesota.

Per Stein:

The challenge, of course, in pursuing any of those three is convincing one of them to leave their veritable college kingdoms to take over an NBA team whose franchise player has only a year to go on his contract.

The coach Minnesota ultimately hires is supposed to help the Wolves sway Kevin Love to stay. But how do you convince the likes of Donovan to leave Florida -- or a full-fledged emperor like Izzo at Michigan State -- to make the jump to the NBA without assurances that Love will stick around for the long haul?

Wolves president of basketball operations and minority owner Flip Saunders and Izzo are tight. Hoiberg is a former Wolves player and executive. They will surely listen when the call comes. And so, too, will Donovan. They will give the Wolves an opportunity, at the very least, to make a determined pitch.

It’s OK to say no, especially since the grass is often greener in college.

Sure, this Minnesota job -- and any NBA opening -- will come with perks. There’s a chance Love will stay in Minnesota and give the next coach a chance to build around him. Plus, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor just bought one of America’s largest newspapers because he felt like it. What will he spend on his next coach?

But Donovan, Izzo and Hoiberg -- and other college coaches like them -- enjoy something that’s rarely replicated in the NBA: long-lasting appreciation.

In the NBA, they love you and then they leave you. Calipari and Louisville's Rick Pitino know that. Two years ago, Mike Woodson led the New York Knicks to the playoffs after a 54-win season. On Monday, new team president Phil Jackson fired him.

Former Butler coach Brad Stevens could turn things around in Boston. But the Celtics will need a bunch of young players and future draft picks to develop so he can build off a 25-57 record in his first season. And if things don't change in the next two or three years, Stevens will be on the hot seat, too.

College basketball isn't immune to that attitude, either. This is a multibillion-dollar business. Administrators want to win. Now.

But there are more jobs that provide legitimate security, although they might not pay as well. Some college coaches are still living off achievements from a decade ago.

Once you're on a perch in college basketball, you can stay there as long as you'd like.

You can't say that about every college team. There are enough leaders in the game, however, who won't leave their posts until they want to leave.

The three coaches mentioned as possible targets for the Timberwolves job are in the aforementioned group.

[+] EnlargeFred Hoiberg
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsIowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has ties to the Minnesota Timberwolves as a player and executive.
Hoiberg signed a 10-year deal to stay in Ames last year, and Iowa State recently boosted his annual pay to $2.6 million per season. He’s also “The Mayor” of Ames. And if you ever travel to Ames, Iowa, you’ll realize that this isn’t just some nickname. If Hoiberg wanted to be carried to his seat on the bench by a chariot each night at Hilton Coliseum, then that’s exactly what he’d get.

Izzo complained about a lack of appreciation in East Lansing, Mich., when he danced with the Cavs. But when he announced his return, he was surrounded by players, fans, administrators and boosters at an elaborate press conference that felt like a wedding. How many times have you seen that kind of “Welcome Back” ceremony in the NBA?

Donovan must deal with the gravitational pull of Florida football each season. He has won multiple national titles and guided the Gators to the Elite Eight four consecutive seasons. But Gainesville will always be a football town, so maybe he’ll think about the Minnesota gig if it’s offered to him.

But the No. 2 slot in a sports-crazed community is much better than being fourth or fifth in a major market that features four pro teams and Division I basketball/football.

In the NBA, you can be forgotten. Quickly. Or just relentlessly ridiculed. See: the Knicks in 2013-14.

If you’re good, you can become a legend. There are more casualties than heroes, though. Many college coaches who’ve chased NBA cash or prestige have failed and lost the success and comfort they’d previously enjoyed in college.

Yes, there’s often more green in the NBA.

And there’s a lot of blue for the coaches who make the wrong decisions, too.

Sometimes it’s best to just stick with a good thing. The NBA isn’t always a good thing.

NEW YORK -- The seedings tell us Michigan State and Connecticut don’t belong here anymore.

But we know better than that, don’t we?

Michigan State versus UConn … just let that simmer for a moment.

This isn't a matchup of No. 4 and No. 7 seeds. It’s the college basketball equivalent of a heavyweight fight, making it only fitting that Madison Square Garden will serve as host.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter a tough regular season, Branden Dawson has been a big part of Michigan State's postseason run.
Just do the math. Seven Elite Eights since 1999 for the Huskies. Eight Elite Eights during that same span for the Spartans.

The fans of these two teams are spoiled rotten. And we will be, too, come Sunday afternoon.

“We understand when you get to an Elite Eight, you’re gonna play one of the best teams in the country. Michigan State is one of those guys,” UConn guard Shabazz Napier said Saturday. “Great guards, great big guys, great tradition, great coach and it’s gonna be definitely a dogfight.”

“We have got more experience inside. They have probably got a little more outside,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think for the most part, both of us got a decent amount of experience to be playing in an Elite Eight game, and I think that’s what should make it a great, great game.”

Both teams entered the season with lofty expectations, each residing in the Associated Press Top 25. Connecticut was ranked 18th and picked to finish second behind only Louisville in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference.

Michigan State was 16 spots higher -- just a sliver behind Kentucky in a virtual tie for preseason No. 1.

But it’s been a roller coaster of a season, for both teams. UConn opened 9-0 but then suffered back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU four weeks later and dropped out of the national rankings entirely. The Huskies finished tied for third in the AAC, but were embarrassed by Louisville in the teams’ regular-season finale 81-48.

Michigan State was 18-1 in late January, looking every bit as good as expected. But then the Spartans, thanks in part to several injuries, lost seven of their final 12 regular-season games -- including a stunning loss to Georgetown here at the Garden on the first day of February.

Seems like ancient history now.

Speaking of history, that’s been the theme in New York this week. After all, these are the first NCAA tournament games in 53 years at Madison Square Garden.

But two Michigan State players are trying to avoid making history Sunday. If the Spartans don’t beat UConn, seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne will become the first four-year players in Izzo’s 19-year tenure to fail to reach at least one Final Four.

“That’s the extra chip that we have on our shoulders,” Appling said. “So we’re just kind of embracing the moment.”

Izzo said it was something the team talked about early in the season. “I didn't bring it up as much in the last two months, because we had so many other things to deal with,” Izzo said. “Yet I'm starting to hear them talk about it, and I think it's a good thing.”

This isn't the last chance for junior forward Branden Dawson, but he’s certainly playing like it is. Dawson scored 20 just once in the first 35 games of the season, including missing nine games with a broken right hand after slamming it on a table during a film session. But he had 26 points and nine boards in the Spartans’ third-round win over Harvard, and followed that up with 24 and 10 against Virginia on Friday.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Dawson said, of all the criticism the team heard during that rough stretch. “A lot of people on campus, we went to go get something to eat, went to the stores, a lot of people were just asking us, ‘What's going on with the team?’ Some people said it was my fault.”

If Michigan State is playing with a chip on its shoulder, then Connecticut is playing with ... well, an even bigger chip. UConn was banned from postseason play one year ago, meaning the Huskies -- despite finishing 20-10 -- were home watching March Madness.

Actually, they didn't even do that. “I actually couldn't even watch the tournament last year,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It was so painful.”

The program could have imploded -- after all, these players were being punished for the academic sins of their predecessors. Instead they stuck together, with eyes planted firmly on the following March.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier, Monte Morris
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter sanctions kept UConn out of the NCAA Tournament last year, Shabazz Napier and the Huskies are enjoying their Elite Eight run.
“It gave us a lot of motivation. We wanted to be in that tournament, but we couldn't,” Napier said. “I felt like we had chances to either let it bring you down or motivate you, and I think we let it motivate us.”

“Just find positives in everything -- that’s one thing I've learned from Coach [Kevin] Ollie,” Boatright said. “Any negative, you try to find the positive.”

Ollie has done a fine job navigating this program through such a challenging period. But he’s still in just his second year, trying to replace Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun.

So far, so good -- but this is still uncharted territory. “Those are things I can’t control,” Ollie said, of the high expectations. “What I can control is our attitude, how we play together, are we playing with effort, are we playing with passion.

“I can't be Coach Calhoun," Ollie said. "But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from Coach and build on them and just try to create my own."

So, let’s review. Two college basketball programs with a combined five national championships, and 15 Elite Eight appearances in the past 16 years -- and yet both teams still feel as though they have something to prove, at this late stage of March?

Sounds like the recipe for a classic -- a bout to remember, and worthy of the storied setting.

Now all that’s left is to ring the bell.

NEW YORK -- Wow, that was fun.

The NCAA tournament returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in 53 years on Friday night. The atmosphere was electric, and the teams did not disappoint. Michigan State staved off Virginia 61-59 in the nightcap. Here are five quick observations:

Crowd control: So much talk leading up to Friday night's doubleheader concerned the strong showing expected from Connecticut fans, and the Huskies had a definite home-court advantage in Game 1, but Virginia might have had an even bigger advantage in Game 2. The amount of orange in the building was Syracuse-esque here at MSG.

And the Virginia fans were loud, too! Can't blame them for being worked up, considering this was the team's first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995. Well done, Wahoos.

Old school: Around these parts, we used to be treated to some mighty good defensive battles during the heyday of the Big East. This game brought that era to mind.

Just like Wichita State-Kentucky featured shot-making worthy of the Final Four, as opposed to the round of 32, Michigan-State-Virginia belonged another round or two down the road.

Experience counts: Despite all that good defense, we saw some great shot-making down the stretch from both sides.

How about Virginia's Justin Anderson -- scoreless for 38 minutes -- draining a 3-pointer with 1:53 remaining to tie the game at 51?

But the biggest shot of the game was Adreian Payne's trey 22 seconds later which broke the tie and gave the Spartans the lead for good. Don't forget Payne's two clutch free throws with 32.9 seconds left -- in a 1-and-1 situation, no less -- pushing a 56-54 lead to 58-54.

Payne is a senior, Michigan State's been to the Sweet 16 six times in the past seven seasons and the Spartans made more plays at the end when it counts. That's no coincidence.

MVP? All this talk about Michigan State's senior class potentially being the first under Tom Izzo to not reach a Final Four, and it's a junior trying to lead them there.

Branden Dawson scored 20 points just once in the first 35 games of the season, but Dawson had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Spartans' third-round win over Harvard and followed that up with a team-high 24 points and 10 boards against Virginia.

Can't wait: The lower seeds won each of the two games here Friday night, yet it felt like the favorite won both games.

Forget the Spartans' No. 4 seed and the Huskies' No. 7: Michigan State versus UConn? That's a battle of college basketball heavyweights.

In Madison Square Garden, with a spot in the Final Four at stake? It doesn't get much better than that.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Most teams that will be playing in the NCAA tournament next weekend know what and who they are. If they’ve been playing together long enough and they’re playing together in March, there’s a general trajectory for their play, and, though there might be outliers throughout a game, their identity is pretty much settled.

Then there’s Michigan State.

Certainly, there’s individual talent there -- Adreian Payne dropped 41 in the second-round win over Delaware, and Branden Dawson scored a season-high 26 in their 80-73 win over Harvard on Saturday to help advance the Spartans to the Sweet 16. Keith Appling and Gary Harris have taken over games and been leaders. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine keep elevating their games.

But with injuries galore and players constantly being shuffled in and out of the rotation, this team remains one that’s still learning how to play together. It might be coach Tom Izzo’s 12th Sweet 16 team in 17 seasons, but he might know this one’s identity the least.

"We played good enough that you’d say 'That team’s capable of getting to the Final Four,' and we played bad enough that you could say 'That team should’ve been out of the tournament,'" Izzo said. "Maybe it’ll be a little learning lesson for a couple of those guys who got complacent."

It’s the only use this game is to Michigan State at this point. The Spartans can’t take back the near embarrassment or the way that a team without a single athletic scholarship flustered them.

So what can they learn?

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMichigan State players were in a mood to celebrate in a win over Harvard.
Izzo said his team needs to learn how to stay out of foul trouble. Harris said he thinks the Spartans need to be better with time and score. Dawson said they need to learn how to not get comfortable with a lead -- and this Harvard game took the Spartans one step closer to that.

Michigan State blew a 12-point halftime lead against a smaller, less physical team. They got out-executed at times and out-hustled at others. Combined, that created an interesting stretch in which it appeared that the Ivy League might be making a Sweet 16 appearance instead of the team that the president chose to win it all.

After the Spartans accounted for 11 assists and just one turnover in the first 20 minutes, the wheels fell off the train. The Spartans gave the ball away 10 times in the second half, with quite a few of those resulting in dunks and breakaway layups for the Crimson.

And yet, even with all that and the entire arena turning its support to the underdog, this team that’s still figuring out what it is knew what it needed to do.

"The greatest thing that happened for me is we did enough bad things … but we found a way to bounce back and win," Izzo said. "It’s always a better learning experience when you win and do some things that will maybe get their attention now in the film session tomorrow night."

Michigan State will take on the winner of Virginia-Memphis in the Sweet 16, but it’ll still be a few days before the Spartans even think about that.

With how little this group has practiced together because of injuries, it’ll spend a lot of Sweet 16 prep in Spartan focus mode -- building chemistry with each other, working on their timing. It’s the stuff every other team has mainly figured out at this point in the season, but it has been a season of catching up for Izzo.

He has been saying the whole season that this team had the potential to make it this far (and further) if it can figure out the pieces and where they fit. This Harvard game will act as that next piece for the Spartans. They’ve gained a ton of exposure in the past few weeks as they’ve won the Big Ten tournament and put up huge performances, but they can’t get complacent.

If Izzo’s team picks up as quickly as he thinks it can, the Spartans won’t make this same mistake against Memphis, Virginia or anyone else down the road.

"I hope [this experience] makes you smarter," Izzo said. "I don’t think we need to be stronger. We need to be smarter. We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch. Hopefully, this will be a learning experience. Whenever you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson."

The true value of this win won’t be decided until next weekend, when the Spartans travel to New York. If it’s a learning experience the Spartans can put into practice, it’ll be pretty valuable. If they don’t put it to use, they’ll have to wait until next season.

But Izzo knows that those lessons taste sweeter when they come with a win, specifically one that would come on April 7.

"When you can learn and win, that’s a hell of a day," Izzo said. "That’s a hell of a day."
NEW YORK -- On the eve of Super XLVIII across the Hudson River, two college basketball heavyweights went toe-to-toe at Madison Square Garden.

Georgetown pulled the upset, knocking off No. 7 Michigan State 64-60, but don’t panic, Spartans fans -- you still had a pretty good week.

Playing without two of their top four scorers (Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson), who also happen to be the Spartans' two leading rebounders, Michigan State managed a split this week -- winning at No. 15 Iowa on Tuesday before losing on Saturday.

And don’t be fooled by the Hoyas’ record -- they had lost five in a row, but that includes games against No. 9 Villanova, No. 20 Creighton, at Xavier and an overtime loss to Marquette. They’re better than you might think.

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsGary Harris, who scored 17 second-half points against Georgetown, should get some help when Adreian Payne returns from a foot injury.
"Disappointing but not upsetting," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said to open his postgame news conference. "I know John Thompson [III]. I know his teams. … They’re tough, they play hard and they lost some games that I didn’t think they should have lost."

That being said, Izzo did have plenty of criticism for his own squad. "Today, we got out-toughed; we really did. We got thrown around on the boards. We got posted up," Izzo said. "I thought they manhandled us."

Michigan State led 30-29 at halftime despite shooting just 11-for-27 from the field (40.7 percent). But Georgetown went in front for good less than 30 seconds into the second half on a 3-pointer by Reggie Cameron.

The Hoyas never led by more than eight, and the Spartans cut it to two at 56-54 on a Gary Harris 3-pointer with 1:32 left. But on the next possession, Jabril Trawick followed up a Markel Starks miss to push the lead back to four, and Georgetown put the game away from there.

Michigan State shot just 21-for-53 for the game (39.6 percent), 9-for-16 from the foul line and was outrebounded 37-30. The Spartans were 30th in Division I in rebounds per game coming in.

Harris agreed with his coach’s assessment. "They were out-toughing us to get rebounds," he said. "In the end, that cost us the game."

Harris scored a game-high 20 points, 17 of which came in the second half, but he did miss some wide-open looks.

"I was surprised how bad we played, myself included," he said. "I played horrible in the first half. I can’t let that happen, especially coming into a game like this."

Izzo and his players have every right to be disappointed. It was a much-hyped matchup, played on a big stage.

And Thompson had every right to be excited, though he chuckled when told about Izzo’s "manhandled" comment.

"I don’t know about that. But you’re not going to beat Michigan State, or any team in the Big East, if you aren’t physically tough," Thompson said. "Traditionally down through the years, [Izzo’s] teams have been one of the more physical teams in the country, and so I thought we met the challenge today."

Izzo’s team will be far more challenging once Payne (16.2 points per game, 7.7 rebounds per game) returns from a foot injury. Izzo said Payne is expected to return to practice Monday. He could play Thursday night against Penn State.

Getting Payne back is far more important than a nonconference game against Georgetown, even if it was Super Saturday in New York.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Before Michigan could even soak in the joys of silencing an opponent’s crowd -- hearing how a rival’s arena goes from a roar to a hush because of what they had done -- the criticism had snuck into most Michigan players’ thoughts.

For so many -- they know -- there will be an asterisk next to the Wolverines’ 80-75 win over Michigan State on Saturday.

Yes, Michigan State was short-handed. Adreian Payne is out with a foot injury and Branden Dawson broke his hand Thursday during a film session (which MSU coach Tom Izzo actually complimented, saying “it’s good to see some passion for basketball.”).

Those two players are important for Michigan State’s success and the Spartans didn’t have them. That is a fact. But basketball is a game with changing elements and coaches play the hands they are dealt.

So don’t let that take everything away from this Wolverines team. Don’t let that completely discount a victory because the Breslin Center is at least a sixth man, maybe even a seventh man on a night like Saturday when Michigan comes to town.

And don’t let that take away from freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. coming into his own on an opponent’s court or Nik Stauskas hitting five 3-pointers with hands in his face. Don’t let that take away from the fact that the Wolverines played their way back into this game, then hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final two minutes.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Walton Jr.
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFreshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. came of age against No. 3 Michigan State, pouring in 19 critical points in No. 21 Michigan's victory.
The Spartans’ injuries don’t negate an impressive win, the Wolverines’ third top-10 win just in eight days. Don’t take anything away from Michigan because Izzo isn’t and won’t.

“Don’t take anything away from them,” Izzo said. “They made some shots. They made some plays. We had our chance.”

That charge was led mainly by sophomore guard Gary Harris, who led all scorers with a career-high 27 points on just nine field goals. Senior point guard Keith Appling recorded a double-double (10 points and 10 assists) to just one turnover.

So the Spartans certainly did have a chance, Harris and Appling made sure of that. And Breslin was there to back them up, to get into the heads of a team that has had 89 percent of its scoring this season come from freshmen and sophomores. Certainly, those are the players that a crowd can get to.

“I’ve never heard a crowd that loud,” Walton said. “Iowa State and Duke really wasn’t that loud. Coming out of that locker room here, hearing 18,000 kids jumping up and down, that was a crazy feeling.”

And while the Wolverines might’ve jumped out to an early lead, hitting their first four shots, it was the Spartans who played the more composed first half. They led 36-30 at halftime and, even without Payne, they allowed just six points in the paint.

That would end up being one of the stat lines the Spartans dominated, scoring 30 points in the paint to Michigan’s 16.

But the Wolverines were better elsewhere. They hit 11 3-pointers. Their top three scorers combined to shoot better than 50 percent from the floor and 77 percent from 3-point range. They rebounded 39 percent of their misses. They shot 83 percent from the charity stripe. They scored 15 second-chance points, the most given up by the Spartans defense this season.

That’s where Appling and Harris and Breslin couldn’t counter enough.

“I’m kind of glad I don’t have to come back here,” fifth-year senior center Jordan Morgan joked after the game.

Off all people, Morgan can talk to the Spartans about stepping up in the midst of injury. He and Jon Horford stepped into the minutes left behind by preseason All-American Mitch McGary when he had back surgery a few weeks ago.

Those two combined for eight rebounds and 10 points in 36 minutes of play.

By the time Morgan was reflecting on his previous games in the Breslin Center it was already empty -- that exodus had begun with a minute left in the game when the momentum had swung heavily to Michigan. He could appreciate the silence then, especially because he knows how rare it is to come by on the road.

In his five years at Michigan the Wolverines have never been better than .500 on the road in a single season. Right now Michigan is 4-2.

“That’s the best part,” Morgan said. “They try to get all in to your head but at the end of the day, you just kind of keep moving and don’t let it affect you. … When we went on our run it got pretty quiet in there.”

And like a veteran team, Michigan put a run on the Spartans. After the last eight days John Beilein’s group has had it’ll certainly see a significant boost in the rankings, and perhaps Izzo’s group will drop sans its two starters.

But those don’t really matter because in a rivalry game statistics and records are thrown out, leaving it to the bitterness to play itself out. And on Saturday, the Wolverines walked away the victors.

The Spartans visit the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Feb. 23 and they’ll then have a chance to silence the Michigan crowd. But for now, let Michigan savor this victory without an asterisk.

“It’s fair to say that we don’t like each other very much,” Stauskas said. “So it makes it a lot of fun to come here on the road and make these fans quiet up.”

The opponent mattered as much as the circumstances Tuesday night.

Although Michigan State had the luxury of competing in East Lansing, it still faced a viable Indiana team that’s searching for an identity. That’s always a dangerous predicament for a favored home team because an opponent might find it midgame.

Plus, Wooden Award candidate Adreian Payne missed the matchup due to a sprained right foot that reportedly could sideline him for the next two weeks.

The Hoosiers were combative in their hunt for a significant road win -- the only elixir for a recent loss to Northwestern -- as expected. But Michigan State emerged from the rubble with a 71-66 victory and a remarkable 7-0 start in the arduous Big Ten.

The Spartans continue to regroup when personnel limits threaten their success.

No Payne? Fine.

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Duane Burleson/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Garry Harris drives against Indiana's Noah Vonleh.
Gary Harris, a possible lottery pick this summer, scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half. Michigan State forced 18 turnovers against an Indiana team that continues to cost itself possessions and games with sloppy ballhandling.

The Spartans were down 46-41 with 11:51 to play. But by the 3:53 mark, they were ahead by 10. A few free throws in the final minute and the Spartans had proven, again, that they’re the current Big Ten kings and threats to reach Arlington, Texas, in April.

“I made no bones about it at the beginning of the year that this is one of those teams that I think has a legitimate shot,” Tom Izzo told reporters prior to Tuesday’s game. “And, I think that we've proven that we do. We could lose three games in a row and still prove that we do.”

That potential is tied to its overall health, though.

And the Spartans haven’t really been 100 percent all season.

That hasn’t stopped them from climbing to the top of the league and winning their last 11 games, following a loss to North Carolina on Dec. 4. But it’s still the lingering concern for the program.

Payne is out. Harris has dealt with an ankle injury -- he played with a bad shoulder last year. Travis Trice missed time due to illness. Matt Costello, too. Just three players saw action in each of the team’s first 18 games.


The Spartans are deep enough to tussle with any team in the Big Ten, even if Payne can’t go or Harris is hobbled or Trice doesn’t feel well. They’ve shown that multiple times.

Their ceiling is high. To reach it, however, Izzo will need a healthy roster.

Noah Vonleh is an NBA-ready freshman who’s gradually opening the toolbox and showing off talents that should compel scouts to slobber. He took advantage of Payne’s absence in a performance that carried the Hoosiers (13 points, 13 rebounds, one block, one steal).

Payne is a significant component on offense and defense for the Spartans. He’s agile enough to contain shooters and big enough to stop post players. Yogi Ferrell (19 points, 4-for-13) might have had even more trouble finding good shots with Payne on the floor.

Yet, they won without him.

Tuesday’s win provided more proof of Michigan State’s resilience. The best teams ignore circumstances and adjust.

But injuries -- especially if Payne isn’t available for a lengthy period or if he’s bothered by the foot injury for the remainder of the season -- could be detrimental in the coming weeks. The Spartans will play Michigan, Iowa (in Iowa City), Georgetown, Penn State and Wisconsin (in Madison) in their next five games. It’s a stretch that will either solidify their spot atop the Big Ten or jeopardize it, as conference frontrunners ascend.

An interesting transition is taking place in college basketball right now. The true contenders are beginning to emerge.

Arizona is a versatile juggernaut that would be a nightmare for any team in the country. Tyler Ennis has helped Syracuse stay on top of the ACC. And Joel Embiid’s presence might position Kansas to be the scariest team in the field of 68 come March.

In late January, squads often take shape and turn the corner, for better or worse. The overrated are exposed. The elite young teams tend to evolve this time of year as they finally reach a level of chemistry and maturity that they just didn’t have in November and December. The veteran programs win the gritty games and showcase the true value of experience.

Things begin to make sense in college basketball as February approaches.

Or fall apart.

The Spartans continue to avoid the latter scenario even as injuries affect their lineups.

If Izzo’s squad does what it’s capable of doing and wins the Big Ten and makes a commendable run in March, then the program will earn rightful praise for its ability to navigate this midseason turbulence.

But if this injury bug undercuts the Spartans, and if it refuses to relinquish its hold the rest of the way, then Michigan State’s year could end with disappointment and a question.

What if the Spartans had been healthy?

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Count it as a win for basketball that, after one of the most exciting comebacks, finishes and overtimes this season, both coaches stood at the podium, brows furrowed, voicing their disappointments about their respective teams.

Count it as a win that Tom Izzo wasn’t happy with No. 5 Michigan State’s 72-68 win over No. 3 Ohio State. Or that Thad Matta wasn’t pleased with the 20-3 run his Buckeyes accomplished in the final 10 minutes of regulation, forcing overtime. Or that you couldn’t find a smile on a Spartan or a Buckeye. Count it as a win that nobody who actually took part in the game was happy.

Count all that as a win because it means that Big Ten basketball is back, living up to its billing yet again.

No, it wasn’t always pretty. The basketball was far from perfect.

Ohio State went 4-for-18 from 3-point range. Michigan State was outrebounded 42-28. The Buckeyes started slow and couldn’t find an answer as the Spartans jumped out to a 55-38 lead. But then MSU choked that up -- badly.

[+] EnlargeAdreian Payne
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAdreian Payne
“I should be happier than I am,” Izzo said. “But I’m a big-picture guy and you shouldn’t have those kind of letdowns no matter what the other team does.”

Both teams’ highs were high and their lows were low, but when it was working and when the teams were on, it was really fun.

It’s extremely early in the season. There’s time for Ohio State to work on switching defenses, and there’s time for the Spartans to get healthy and figure out their rotation.

So much can happen between now and March, but the fact that it’s so good so soon has to mean something, right?

Because on the first full day that college football was over, a day that it would still seem appropriate to be discussing Jameis and Tre, Jimbo and Gus, a night that was just 24 hours removed from crowning the national champion in football, all eyes were on a green-and-white gymnasium in East Lansing -- a gymnasium that possibly held the eventual national champion.

This was just two games into the Big Ten season, making for one heck of an appetizer to the conference slate.

Sure, the nonconference schedule featured matchups with talented teams and some trips to tropical locations, but this is what it’s all about: the bitter, Midwestern cold and the refuge found inside a gymnasium with gritty, hard-nosed basketball.

Big Ten basketball is back, and on Tuesday night, the Spartans and Buckeyes confirmed to everyone that this is the conference to watch.

“You know, it just keeps coming,” Matta said. “We’ll build on the positives from this game and we’ll correct the negatives. We’ll get ready to go again, because it doesn’t get any easier.”

The Buckeyes play No. 20 Iowa, then travel to Minneapolis to play a hungry Golden Gophers team that came dangerously close to knocking off Michigan. Before the season is over, they’ll have road games at Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Penn State and Indiana before closing out the regular season with, you guessed it, Michigan State.

And the Spartans get Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa before the month of January is over.

Week after week, these teams get the chance to pick up marquee wins in tough venues. Week after week there will be reason to be thankful that Big Ten basketball is back. And it’ll leave basketball fans wanting more.

Because even after everyone got five extra minutes of Ohio State and Michigan State last night, most people wished it would’ve gone into double or triple overtime. That’s how good it was.

That’s how much people wanted to watch Aaron Craft on Keith Appling and Gary Harris. That’s how much people wanted to see Adreian Payne -- who didn’t even think he’d play today because of injury -- go to work. That’s how much people wanted to take in Matta and Izzo’s chess match and the ensuing foot stomps and glares.

The coaches can be upset right now because they know the potential of these groups and they know better than anyone how far Tuesday’s product was from that. They see it every single day in practice; the rest of us have to wait until game days to take it in.

But having the coaches this upset at this point means that even the good we saw this week is far from the good we could see in March. And if that’s the case, we’re in for one heck of a ride the next few months.

“Hopefully, by tomorrow I’m going to say, ‘Thirty-some minutes we played damn good,’" Izzo said. “I think I’ll appreciate the win more tomorrow. It ain’t going to be tonight, though. Promise you that.”

Matta, Izzo, Appling and Craft can all be unhappy with what happened Tuesday night. Basketball fans everywhere should plead that the coaches are never truly satisfied, never happy enough with what was put on the court, always wanting their group to get to that next level.

But for everyone else? Just be happy that Big Ten basketball is back.

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.

Roy Williams radio show highlights

December, 2, 2013
North Carolina coach Roy Williams was in rare form tonight on his weekly radio show. Williams was still fuming over the Tar Heels’ performance in their 63-59 loss at UAB Sunday and several times made references to how "ticked off" he was.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesRoy Williams was still upset with the Tar Heels' effort in Sunday's loss to UAB and he said the players will now have to deal with "the meanest blanket blanks in the next 48 hours."
Rebounding, in particular, drew his ire because he believed the Heels simply didn’t play hard enough at times and it was reflected by the Blazers’ 52-37 advantage on the boards.

“We’ve got to play harder, that’s the discouraging thing because, as I said, I don’t think I should coach effort,” Williams said. “I should coach the execution of what we’re doing. I think the other team gave more effort yesterday. That does bother me a great deal.”

That could be trouble as Carolina ventures into Michigan State on Wednesday for the ACC/Big Ten challenge. MSU coach Tom Izzo felt he had a similar problem with his team rebounding, so he brought back his infamous “war drill.” Izzo has occasionally put his players in football pads to prepare them for the contact during the drill, which essentially involves an intentionally missed shot and players going all out to scrap up the ball.

Maybe the Tar Heels could use the same -- the Spartans are currently enjoying a plus-five rebounding advantage over its opponents. From the sounds of it, Williams is waging his own battle to get his team to play with more effort. He said he’s already changed the itinerary for Wednesday, adding that, “I’m going to be one of the meanest blanket blanks in the next 48 hours.”

Just like the Heels bounced back after losing to Belmont, Williams believes they will respond against the Spartans.

“I think we will play really well Wednesday night, is that going to be good enough? We’ll have to wait and see,” Williams said. “They’re going to draw a line in the sand. I’m going to step across. I hope some players come with me.”