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February 03, 2011

Sometimes it isn't as bad as it seems

And sometimes it is. In this case, I'd say it is.

    Forget what happened on the court Wednesday. MSU had no redeeming qualities as a basketball team, other than Derrick Nix's second straight encouraging performance. Give credit, I suppose to the group of backups -- including some credible effort from Adreian Payne and Austin Thornton -- who chopped that lead to 15 at one point.

    Yes, chopped the lead to 15. For a minute. At Iowa. It's that bad.

    “I think that was the worst performance of a team that I’ve coached since I’ve been at Michigan State,” Tom Izzo said.

    "Embarrassing," Delvon Roe said.

    "We got punked," Derrick Nix said.

    "We're at rock bottom," Draymond Green said.

    Are you sure?

    "I don't know how much farther you can drop."

    Give credit, also, to the Hawkeyes. They played well. They have some good players and Fran McCaffery's style gives him a chance to get this program going. This league is void of tomato-can programs.

    But again, forget all that. The real story tonight was the reaction by Tom Izzo and his players afterward. In particular, their discussion of the senior leadership that is lacking. Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers were called out.

    And the apparent disconnect between those two and their head coach threatens to turn these final few weeks into something very unpleasant for all parties. These are players who led -- carried, in some stretches -- MSU to the 2009 national title game as sophomores. Lucas is a guy who should, by all standard measures, expect to have his No. 1 hung from the Breslin rafters some day.

    Summers is the guy who got this team to the Final Four a year ago, after it looked just before that run like he and Izzo might not be able to co-exist any longer.

    Summers was despondent then, before the run. We need a new word for despondent now. He appears to be sick of everything, and he's certainly sick of taking questions from us about what's wrong.

    "If we knew," he said when asked what can be done, "we would have tried to do it."

    Nix was asked what's missing for this team. His response was immediate.

    "Leadership," he said. "Senior leadership."

    Is that surprising to you?

    "It's not surprising."

    And Izzo had a lot to say.

    “I’m gonna make some changes probably,” he said. “There’s some guys that are gonna have to grow up. I’m very disappointed with the leadership of this team. I mean Day-Day is trying to do it, but you’ve got to have seniors that do it and I’m struggling with that a lot.”

    Izzo said “the coaching staff and I deserve as much blame as anybody” for this team's struggles, but he also clearly questioned the dedication of some players.

    “I don’t know if some guys have other interests than maybe the program or Michigan State, I don’t know that,” he said. “I guess that’s my job to find out, but does it bother them? I think if bothers them as much bothers me, they’d have played a little harder early in that game.”

    Here's more from Izzo on the matter: “If I said I’m as confused as you that would look so wrong but I think I’ve always been pretty honest with the media,” he said. “I am as confused as you. But I think usually throughout a year, a season, a lifetime, usually if you don’t do the things you’re supposed to do on a day-to-day basis, which is defend and rebound and carry yourself and do the things you’re supposed to do on and off court, things happen.
    “And right now we’re not, we’re just not buying into that you’ve got to run a team if you’re a point guard, that you’ve got to make shots and guard people if you’re a two guard. Because most teams’ best players are that. So I’ll say I haven’t done a very good job of getting that through to guys.”

    Izzo tried to soften the message at times.

    “Well you know, I’m not blaming one group, I’m just telling you that every year it takes the seniors to lead a team," he said. "And we’ve just had, it’s just been a different (group) and it’s been hard, but hey, the coaching staff and I deserve as much blame as anybody if I can’t get my team ready to play.”

    That goes without saying. Izzo gets the credit and the glory and the large paycheck when MSU has success. The Spartans have had wild success and he's had plenty of all three and he's deserved it. Seasons like this -- there have been a few disappointing ones but let's face it, nothing quite like this -- are on him first and foremost, just as the great ones will put him in the hall of fame some day.

    It's going to be really interesting to see if he can get out of this.

    This team has obvious limitations, and it lost a lot more than some people  may have thought at first when Korie Lucious was booted. The first question is, can Izzo, Lucas and Summers get on the same page? He's going to have a lot of glowing things to say about both guys before their senior day -- against Iowa, by the way, on March 2 -- but can he get them to respond between now and then? If not, how does MSU win enough games to get an NIT bid?

    To be fair to Lucas, he showed a lot of heart last week in those two home games. He has done an incredible amount for this program over the years. Think of the game-winning shots alone. But when MSU came out flat Wednesday and never got out of it, Izzo did not see what he wanted to see from Lucas. He did not "grab the bull by the horns," as Izzo said. That's not Lucas.

    “That's something coach Izzo said, something we are lacking," Lucas said of leadership on the floor. "I don’t think that’s it. I think guys just didn’t come ready to play tonight. ... "I was trying to lead, trying to bring more energy to the team, trying to tell guys we're gonna come back, but guys just didn't come out with the mentality to win tonight."   

    Asked the question about senior leadership, Summers said: “You can say that, but I think it’s more than that. It’s basketball. We’ve just got to play the game.”

    Roe was asked about the senior leadership.

    "It's not great right now," he said. "We're missing a lot of things. (But) you can't just count on three players to be leaders. You need the whole team to be leaders."

    Green was asked about the senior leadership.

    "That may be how coach feels, but at the end of the day, you still have to play," he said. "We didn't play."

    In a way, I have to agree with Summers and Green. It's the game of basketball. Go out and play it. This team has good enough players to avoid getting blown out by Iowa, no?

    On the other hand, at this level of competition, you'd better have some cohesion, some passion, focus, camaraderie. And yes, some leadership. These are things that have helped MSU become one of the nation's elite programs even though Izzo has not stockpiled talent at the level of a Williams or a Krzyzewski or even a Matta.

    I'm sure some of you have already gone into "program panic" mode, but I'll say it right here: MSU is going to be very good next season, and very good for the foreseeable future. Izzo has talent locked up for 2011 and 2012 that will keep the Spartans in the discussion for all the things they've become accustomed to pursuing. The makeup of every team is different and next season's might actually have a chance to exceed expectations.

    But this season? It's a disaster right now, folks. And Izzo isn't going to change that unless he can get what he needs from the two players who came with Chris Allen in 2007 and will leave as one of the winningest classes in MSU history.

    "I guess like a lot of things in life, sometimes you get into territory you haven’t been at before. I’m there," Izzo said. "But I've been close before and worked my way out of it. One way or another, we’ll work our way out of it."

    This should make for an interesting chat at 10 a.m. Talk to you then.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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