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Izzo's three laws of basketball

February 19, 2009
Photo by llustration by Hailey Schaldach | The State News

Law 1: Defense

Whatever Michigan guard Manny Harris tried to do, it simply wouldn’t work. The Wolverines’ 6-foot-5 guard tried to drive through the lane, post up in the paint and spot up from three, but wherever he went on Feb. 10, MSU senior guard Travis Walton was there in his face.

“If Travis Walton isn’t one of the best defenders in this league then I don’t know who is,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said at the time. “Manny Harris has the most respect from me, my staff and our team. I thought Travis did an incredible job.”

Just as the Spartans expected Harris to be a problem in their 54-42 win over U-M earlier this month, MSU’s defensive stopper has been a constant problem for numerous opposing players who have failed to play up to their standards against Walton, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior captain.

Throughout the season, Walton has held scorers such as Harris, Texas’ A.J.
Abrams, Ohio State’s Jon Diebler, Minnesota’s Lawrence Westbrook and Indiana’s Devan Dumes below their scoring averaging, frustrating each one of them with his physical style of play.

“I don’t think you can teach that,” Walton said of his mind-set as a defensive player.

“As a player, it’s your will to win. If you want to win real bad, you have to play defense, you have to be a leader in some way, you have to be able to help somebody and if you’re going to be a winner, then you have to be able to knock
down big shots or make a big
play.”

As MSU’s defense has seen its share of both highs and lows this season — holding opponents to 63.8 points a game and a 41.7 shooting percentage — Walton has been its consistent stopper, shutting down one big-time player after another.

Walton and Izzo have let it be known they think Walton is deserving of the 2009 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, which also has Purdue’s Chris Kramer (the reigning defensive player of the year) and Illinois’ Chester Fraizer in the conversation. Walton is already a two-time member of the Big Ten All-Defensive team.

With a goal like that in mind, it shows how Walton has grown since high school, during a time in which he admitted scoring was his main focus. But when he was trying to find a role with the Spartans as a freshman in 2005-06, he realized the quickest way to see the court was to become the team’s defensive stopper, a title he’s held up high with an attitude he hopes spreads throughout the team.

“I came here as a hard-nosed person who played hard,” Walton said. “I played defense in high school, too, but up here it was more like that’s me, I’m a defender, and I embraced that role.”

Law 2: Rebounding

When comparing this year’s MSU men’s basketball team to the 2000 National Championship squad, the similarities are endless.

Dynamic guards, deep benches and solid defenses are among the many parallels between the teams. However, these all pale in comparison to the similarity that will best encapsulate each team’s legacy.

Just like their predecessors, the Spartans lead the nation in rebounding despite playing in arguably the country’s most blue-collared conference.

MSU is snatching 9.9 more rebounds per game than its opponents, giving it slim leads over Pittsburgh (9.8) and Washington (9.4).

“We take pride in rebounding,” senior center Goran Suton said. “We can’t get cocky with the fact that we are leading the NCAA in rebounding, we just have to keep doing it.”

Of MSU’s 958 rebounds this season, 356 (37.2 percent) of them have come on the offensive end, where the Spartans frustrate teams by stealing extra possessions.

“It obviously helps us when you get seven or eight rebounds per game,” Suton said. “If you don’t turn the ball and we get a shot up, we get almost 50 percent of our misses, so any time we get a shot off, offensive rebounding has been a plus.”

MSU’s dominance comes despite a rotation that features just one player who is taller than 6-foot-9. That player is Suton, who leads the conference in rebounding both overall (7.7 rpg) and in conference games (8.6 rpg).

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MSU’s other major glass cleaners — senior forward Raymar Morgan (6 rpg) and freshman forward Delvon Roe (5.4 rpg) — each stand at 6-foot-8, which by relative standards isn’t all that tall for a big man.

“You’ve got to dominate and control the boards,” Roe said. “If you can do that, no matter what’s going on in the game, you’ll have a chance to win just by offensive rebounding and second chance shots and limiting teams to just one-and-out on the offensive end.”

As great as their big men have been, what separates the Spartans is the rebounding production they receive from their backcourt.

While most guards shy away from contact underneath the hoop, senior guard Travis Walton (2.6 rpg) and sophomore guards Kalin Lucas (2.2 rpg) and Durrell Summers (3.4 rpg) fearlessly attack the glass.

Roe said that’s the kind of attitude the Spartans will need to remain successful.

“If we can keep improving on the defensive end and getting our guards in there to rebound, that would be a big step in us leading the league in rebounding,” Roe said.

Although history doesn’t necessarily dictate the future, Morgan said his team draws inspiration from the way the 2000 team won its title.

“In the past, (rebounding has) won us championships,” Morgan said.

“Hopefully in the future, we can rebound like them and get one.”

Law 3: Fastbreak

First it was Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell.

Then it was Drew Neitzel, Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager.

If you look through any successful Tom Izzo roster from the past 14 years, a key recipe for success for the MSU men’s basketball coach is two dynamic, athletic wings and a sure-handed point guard who can get them the ball.

Izzo Fastbreak Version 3.0, which stars sophomore guards Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen, has the athleticism and potential to be the best.

“I think Chris Allen and Durrell Summers are two of the better wing guys we’ve ever had,” Izzo said earlier this season. “They aren’t even close to being the best yet, but I think they are potentially two of the better wing guys that have played here. Those two guys have the chance to be special. That class, with those two guys and Kalin Lucas, has a chance to be a very special class.”

As the season has progressed, the sophomore trio increasingly has learned how to put in the necessary work to live up to that potential, going to the gym together late at night to work on their shooting during the last few weeks. They also have become more dedicated in the film room, not only critiquing themselves and preparing for opponents, but also watching film of the 2000 National Championship team.

Lucas said by watching the 2000 team as a whole, he can get a feel of what his team needs to do in order to accomplish its goal of winning the 2009 title. On an individual basis, Lucas — who called the 2000 team “scrappy” — said lately he thinks Summers has shown a similar playing style of Peterson, diving after loose balls and getting out to run the fast break quickly.

As for the impact the film sessions have had on the trio, Summers said he and Allen have been able to pick up how Peterson and Bell both crashed the boards and were able to get out wide on the fast break, opening up more room in transition and leading to more highlight reel plays.

Summers’ hope is that the extra film time, coupled with the trio’s athleticism, helps him, Allen and Lucas live up to the promise Izzo has laid the groundwork for.

“We talk about it a little bit, but at the same time we kind of want to have our own identity, too,” Summers said of the comparisons between his class and earlier teams.

“We try to look at what those guys did and we try to put what we do and try to combine it and try to create something just as good — or, if we can — even better.”

Missing link: free throws

At the formal conclusion of every practice, members of the MSU men’s basketball team know it’s not quite time to hit the showers.

Before retiring for the day, each player migrates to his respective spot in the gym, steps 15-feet back from the basket and starts shooting.

The Spartans, who are hitting just 68.7 percent of their free throws this season,
need all the practice they
can get.

“Free throws, coach always says, are going to make or break your team,” Roe said. “We’ve been a little bit inconsistent, probably because of me, but if we keep improving on our free throws, it will make us so much better.”

Only Lucas and Suton, shooting 81.5 and 79.5 percent, respectively, have been consistent threats at the line.

Roe is shooting a dismal 42.7 percent from the charity stripe, while Walton and Morgan haven’t been much better. Morgan is shooting an underwhelming 68.4 percent, while Walton is shooting 51.6 percent.

The stats come despite the fact that, through Tuesday’s games, MSU had 131 more chances at the line than its opponents.

For a team that gets to the line as frequently as MSU, Walton said improvement is necessary.

“You can’t beat teams without shooting the ball well from the free-throw line,” he said. “The past couple of games we’ve been doing a pretty job. We’ve just gotta keep practicing.”

The practice has paid off in recent weeks. Over its last four games, MSU is shooting 74.4 percent (67-of-90) from the charity stripe. In Big Ten play, the team is shooting 71.6 percent.

It will be important for the Spartans to continue improving into the postseason, where free-throw shooting can make the difference between a Final Four birth and first round flameout, Lucas said.

“It is going to be big for us to make our free throws,” Lucas said.

“If you can’t make free throws in the game, it might change (the outcome). We just need a better focus when we get to the line.”

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