Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Underdog Spartans adjust to new role

March 15, 2002

Washington - The MSU men’s basketball team arrived for a 12:15 p.m. practice Thursday at the MCI Center, but something was missing. The media hype that surrounded the Spartans in the last three NCAA Tournaments wasn’t present.

Unlike past tournaments, No. 10 seed MSU enters today’s first round matchup with No. 7 seed North Carolina State as the underdog.

MSU head coach Tom Izzo said the new role is one that he doesn’t want the Spartans to get accustomed. But at 12:15 p.m. today, his team will get its first crack at fulfilling its new role.

“I used to think the underdog role was more my style, but I like being right up on top,” Izzo said. “I like people talking.

“They’re still talking, just not in the same way.”

Izzo recalls the media frenzy that accompanied MSU’s 1998 Sweet 16 game with North Carolina.

“I’ll still never forget when we went to Greensboro, North Carolina, to play UNC that year,” he said. “We were driving up to the arena, and all the TV trucks and satellite dishes were there. I could hear my players buzzing in the back so I knew we were in trouble right then.

“Hopefully, I can convince them not to look at those things.”

While a loss in the Sweet 16 would be impressive this year, the Spartans (19-11) must first worry about a hungry Wolfpack (22-10).

N.C. State is making its first trip to the Big Dance since 1991. But that doesn’t mean the Wolfpack isn’t tournament tested.

Last week, the Wolfpack beat Virginia and Maryland in the Atlantic Cost Conference Tournament before losing to Duke in Sunday’s championship game.

N.C. State is led by guard Anthony Grundy. He averaged 23 points in the ACC Tournament, including a career-high 32 points against Virginia. Grundy also paced the Wolfpack during the regular season, leading the team in scoring (17.9), rebounding (5.5) and assists (3.6).

Despite its senior leadership, N.C. State is similar to MSU in that it relies on its freshmen to play heavy minutes. Forward Ilian Evtimov, swingman Julius Hodge and forward Josh Powell all average more than 19 minutes a game. Hodge leads that group with 10.4 points per game in 26.9 minutes a game.

“At this time of year, I don’t think the NCAA experience matters as much,” Izzo said. “Both teams have been competitive in just about every game, and that should lead to a very good basketball game.”

While Izzo said prior tournament experience isn’t that important in March, he did say knowing how to handle the pressure surrounding it is.

“The first year we went to the Final Four it was just overwhelming, and I had to coach my team on how to handle it,” he said. “Now I really have to coach them again because most of our players aren’t playing the same roles or haven’t been here.

“Does it help me a little bit that I can say it to them? Yes, but I don’t have to play the games. Each guy has to learn how to deal and handle this. Stay focused, that’s been our key when practices are going on and TV cameras are on.”

Freshman swingman Alan Anderson said sometimes it’s hard not to notice the cameras.

“A little bit, yes and no,” Anderson said. “No, because sometimes we have people come in and watch (at Breslin Center), but then I say yes because there’s a lot of cameras everywhere watching our every move.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at ricejust@msu.edu.

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