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Michigan State short on stars but long on grit

By Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press –

PHOENIX — Tom Izzo said it again Wednesday on the eve of the Sweet 16 — his 10th such trip in 15 years.

“I’m a blue-collar guy, and I belong to a blue-collar university and damn proud of it,” he said.

This season, perhaps more than most, he is trying to win a blue-collar championship. Michigan State might be the No. 1 seed in the West Regional. The Spartans might have a first-team All-America and one of the nation’s best players in Draymond Green. They might have size and skill down low and speed and shooting up top.

What they don’t have, however, is a sheen; they don’t have the buzz of a Kentucky or North Carolina or Duke.

“This is not the most talented team I’ve had,” Izzo said, “. . . not even in the top five, six or seven, in my mind.”

So why are they here, about to play Louisville in the Sweet 16 with a shot at the Elite Eight and possibly another Final Four?

This season’s squad, Izzo said, “should be a learning team for a lot of people out there in high school or college. (There are) a lot of ways you can get it done. And if everybody sticks together, you can get it done, certainly.”

Where this team rates in talent during Izzo’s 15-year tenure is a subject for debate another time. (Who knows, in 10 years we might look back on this team with a different opinion of how stacked it was?) As of this moment, the Spartans are a young team with a great player and a roster that fits snugly around him.

A roster that will be tested Thursday night against the speed and quickness of Louisville’s guards and against the zone press coach Rick Pitino likes to employ. Izzo tried to simulate that speed this week with his scout team.

It wasn’t easy.

“I would have loved to have brought Mark Dantonio’s defensive backs and receivers over to press us,” Izzo said. “I have my scout team, I call them my Iron Mountain 5. And those guys are not quite as athletic. This Louisville team, what I’ve always done against pressing teams, I put seven guys on the floor. But the way they press, there’s reads you’ve got to have and run and jumps, and there’s things that it’s harder to do that than a normal zone press.”

Izzo calls Louisville’s press a “u pick them,” meaning it’s a zone with some man principles, allowing for the Cardinals to trap but also to cover more traditionally. It’s designed to create chaos, and whether point guards Keith Appling and Travis Trice can handle the onslaught will be a huge key.

Making the challenge more difficult is that the Spartans haven’t played against a similar team all season.

“You can see a lot of things on film, but you can’t see athleticism or chaos,” Izzo said. “And Rick’s teams create chaos.”

On one hand, Izzo wants to handle the chaos and take advantage of Appling’s speed in transition.

“You’ve got to attack the press,” senior Austin Thornton said. “You can’t just break it.”

On the other hand, Izzo doesn’t want to get into a track meet, either.

“Finding the happy medium has been more difficult because we just can’t match that athleticism in a practice, and especially at this time of year you don’t want to wear your team down,” he said.

The happy medium also is a place where MSU’s bigs live. Derrick Nix, Adreian Payne and Green thrive in a half-court setting. Louisville will want to wear them down by making them run. MSU wants to run but wants to dump the ball to the post.

At this point in the tournament, with a berth in the Elite Eight on the line, the adjustments and strategy often are what make the difference between teams that are evenly matched.

“I’d say it will come down to the wire,” Nix said.

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