Izzo, Spartans Prepare for New Challenge
Michigan State is ranked in the preseason Top 25 but they are already looking up at three teams from the Big Ten to start the year.
THE MODERATOR: We have with us Michigan State coach, Tom Izzo, 18 seasons, 11 letter winners from last year’s squad. They advanced to the Sweet 16. Coach?
TOM IZZO: Eleven? We must have had a lot of walk ons. You know, in my 18th year, my 30th year there and we kind of go through a lot of phases but I like my team.
I like the fact that we have depth, I think we have some youth, I think we have some guys that have been in a Final Four, won, so we have experience at the highest level, some of these guys have won a couple of Big Ten Championships, and we need improvement out of guys, especially Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, and maybe the best present is, it looks like Branden Dawson is healthy. He’s come back with no signs athletically of any issues, hasn’t missed a practice, hasn’t sat out a minute since we’ve got going so that’s encouraging. You add to that a couple of our freshmen, especially Harris, Valentine and Costello, that gives us depth and we have a chance to put together a pretty good team and unfortunately it’s in a tough conference this year and that’s going to make a difference.
Q. Coach, you named Russell Byrd as your team captain, he’s not one of your older players or productive players. What went behind the decision in that?
TOM IZZO: In all honesty, the team named him, which is even better because I always say that championships and great seasons are won in locker rooms, hotel rooms and airplanes. He did a heck of a job this summer in the locker room.
I didn’t mention him, but he was a kid that came in, a big time shooter, 6 6, 6 7, and he had a broken foot in high school, it never healed properly, it took toward the end of last year before he could practice every day and he, too, is injury-free and has been playing very well, so the fact that they know he’s a good player but he’s an incredible kid who has rallied our guys together, one of those leaders that doesn’t lead by example only, I think those guys are cop outs, I think he leads by playing people in. He had Keith Appling every night and they were shooting a lot and a lot of other players.
I think he’s been a great selection even though he hasn’t shown to be a great player yet.
Q. I was wondering the keys for a freshman coming in and contributing right away, what attributes do they need physically as well as the mental approach?
TOM IZZO: I think physically is important, that’s why I think of Dawson last year, Chris Weber, strong enough to handle things as a freshman and Dawson was that for us. Gary Harris and Valentine are athletic, they’re able to take a pounding. I told Harris a couple of days ago, he’s an illegal alien because he plays both ends of the court and a lot of freshmen don’t guard as well and Dawson, at the end of the year last year, was one of our better defensive players and I think Harris is going to be that off the bat.
I think strength is the key, understanding the speed of the game is a little different, and being tough enough to be good enough defensively because you look at Gilchrist last year and that’s what I think he was.
Q. You played Adreian and Derrick alternate last year, two such good players, is there any way you can play them in tandem?
TOM IZZO: They’re going to have to. Adreian is a very good shooter and that’s a misnomer. He’s probably the best athlete on our team. What he lacks that has to come is we used to run our offense through Green and he maybe doesn’t have the decision making skills, but he’s a good passer, on the other end of the floor, he can guard quicker guys, and they will play together a significant amount. That will be one of the keys.
Like all the teams that I have had that have been good, we can play big or we can throw a Dawson or Byrd in there and we can go small. I think that’s advantageous, especially with our schedule, we’re playing all kinds of different teams, but they will play together.
Q. I want to ask about Gary Harris, a lot was made of his recruitment, one of the top players in the Midwest last year, throughout the country, and what has he shown you so far? I know it’s only been ten days but you get a chance to work with him what has he shown?
TOM IZZO: First of all it’s because of the greatest rule that the NCAA came up with, two hours in the summer. I enjoyed that because it gives us a chance to work with the kids and have fun. During the year it’s pressure on them, pressure on us, but that was great and I learned a lot about Gary then. He’s been better than I thought he would be, shooting better than I thought he would, and he picks up things so fast.
I tease his dad because his mother played in the WNBA and she was a very good player at Purdue, so he’s a chip off her block, I guess, but he’s just a great kid to coach. He’s a great student, he picks things up and he’s been shooting the ball better and better. Defensively I give his high school coach credit because he had it before he came here. He’s very, very intelligent defensively and works very hard at it.
Q. All the coaches talk about the rule allowing them to work with their players as a big deal, but it’s only two hours. Why is it a big deal? What do you get done in two hours?
TOM IZZO: Remember now for 20 years it was illegal to talk to them, you walk by them in the hallway and you can barely say hi because you’re afraid somebody is hiding out behind the garbage can or something.
So it’s just the relationship you build with them. What you do, like in any profession, is you hope they change their free throw, you hope they change their jump shot so you work with them in the spring and you don’t see them for four months and there is nothing worse than work, on something to try to get better at it and doing it the wrong way. This gives us a chance to check in with them, it wasn’t like we put in a new offense or defense, so September and October came and it wasn’t foreign.
But I would say developing the relationship, letting him know what practices are going to be like. You know sometimes I went three 40 minute ones, sometimes I went two, one hour ones, and I think it made me coach better, because you have to condense what you want to do in a shorter period of time. That’s how you learn to speed things up, guys have to think at a faster rate.
I think you’ll find because I’m on the NCAA board or NEBC board, I’m not sure I’ve heard a coach that didn’t like it and administrators should realize we want to work more and so do the players.
Q. I wanted to get your thoughts on the strength of the league this year, three teams in the top 5.
TOM IZZO: I knew somebody would ask that, why ruin a good day.
Q. How does it compare to past years when you’ve been in the Big Ten?
TOM IZZO: Early on when I was assistant, as Jed would say, I felt like the league was really good back then. You had incredible coaches and I think right now this league has the best coaches that we’ve ever had and a lot of it starts there.
Some of the new guys that have been brought in the last couple of years have done a great, great, great job and then just players, some have five, some have six in the top 25, some have seven or eight and some of the teams they leave out of those, you can only put so many in. They’re going to be difficult.
I think Tubby is going to have a great team, I think Fran has done a great job at Iowa and that’s going to be a significant jump. I think Northwestern is going to be right up there, they have a lot of players back and a couple of new ones in, so they’re going to be much better and Indiana is worthy of its high ranking that it’s gotten so far.
When you put all those things together and considering I think we play all five of those top teams that are ranked, it’s going to be a tremendous schedule. Fun for the fans and the media and hard on the coaches.
Q. Can you comment about the sportsmanship initiative, the bench decorum, how will that impact the league? If you get a young one not used to talking to coaches, will that initiate a technical?
TOM IZZO: I told Fran he can’t throw anymore chairs so it’s going to be hard on him but the rest of us should survive just fine. All seriousness, it all goes hand in hand. The officials have to do a good job and we have to do a good job. Sometimes it’s all pointed at one group. The good officials can handle a coach and the good coaches can handle the officials, as long as both parties are doing their job.
In basketball it’s different than football where you’re so close and you get so caught up in the emotion of the game. I hope we don’t start over-legislating against the game, meaning, you know, fans, you can’t have noisemakers, you can’t have this or that. Sometimes I think we over-legislate. There is still the excitement of the game and as far as young officials or old officials, God, aren’t they all bad? No! They’re not!
I don’t think that matters, I think we have a lot of good officials in our league and you just don’t have many problems with the ones that are good. You really don’t. It’s not as bad as you think, and they will probably tone us down, but our jobs aren’t aligned, and things are important to us, too, and Jed used to say a good game makes us all better, and it did!