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2006-2007 Michigan State Spartans

by Chris Mackinder | January 29th, 2007

Team personality: When talking about the personality of a Tom Izzo-coached team, there are only two words to describe the squad: Toughness and rebounding. Still stuck in a five-year drought (and counting) since his team’s last Big Ten Championship, Izzo is determined to raise another banner in the Breslin Center rafters. He knows that will require his team to be the toughest in the conference, led by strong rebounding performances night in and night out. Izzo has already said this is his best defensive team since the late 90s. That’s saying a lot.

Nationally Televised:

Jan. 27 at No. 5 Ohio State (9 p.m., ESPN2)
Jan. 30 at Illinois (9 p.m., ESPN)
Feb. 3 vs. No. 5 Ohio State (4 p.m., CBS)
Feb. 13 vs. Michigan (9 p.m., ESPN)
Feb. 20 vs. No. 3 Wisconsin (7 p.m., ESPN)
Feb. 24 vs. No. 24 Indiana (9 p.m., ESPN)
March 3 at No. 3 Wisconsin (TBA, CBS)

Biggest Games: There are a couple stretches that will make or break Michigan State’s season. The first is right on the doorstep as the Spartans just traveled to No. 5 Ohio State (losing 66-64 despite a furious comeback attempt), visit Illinois and then return home, only to play the Buckeyes again. At worst, the Spartans need to go 1-2 in the three-game stretch to keep their spot near the top of the Big Ten. Currently, the Spartans are 17-5 overall and 4-3 in the conference and would like to keep pace with the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers.

Even when the aforementioned three-game stretch is over, the Spartans won’t be able to exhale very long. To close the conference season, Michigan State’s schedule looks as follows: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Indiana, at Michigan, and at Wisconsin. That is a very, very tough four-game stretch and, if the Spartans happen to falter, they could see their bubble burst as the selection committee has always placed a strong emphasis on how a squad finishes the season. At worst, the Spartans will be able to say they played one of the toughest conference schedules in the country.

Has to be on the floor: Nobody in East Lansing is anointing him the next Mateen Cleaves, but Drew Neitzel is the closest thing to Cleaves that Spartan fans have seen in more than five years. The junior point guard is tough, never holds back his emotions, and is a great floor leader. Oh, and he’s also scoring a team-high 18.2 points and dishing out 4.6 assists per game. Just like the Pistons have their “Mr. Big Shot” in Chauncey Billups, the Spartans’ Mr. Big Shot wears No. 11 and has Neitzel sewn on the back of the jersey.

Take Neitzel off the floor and the Spartans look confused. It’s as if the team is a body that is missing its head. That is the kind of sight that forces Izzo to down a bottle of Pepto Bismo on the bench. But, when his floor leader is directing traffic and executing General Izzo’s plays, the Spartans are one tough Army to beat.

Crunchtime crutch: During the entire Big Ten title drought, ball handling has been Michigan State’s kryptonite. Knowing that vital, but widely-publicized information, defenders will press, trap, and do whatever it takes to make Michigan State’s ball handlers feel uncomfortable in the crucial moments. It has worked in the past as Spartans’ once point guard of the future, Brandon Cotton, transferred after one semester of his freshman year citing “lack of playing time.” That left a glaring void at PG for a few years. With Neitzel in the game, the pressing and trapping has lost some of its luster. However, if the floor director is getting a breather on the sidelines and Travis Walton or Maurice Joseph are handling the ball, teams will undoubtedly use pressure until bad things happen for the Spartans.

Last shot:
Down by one or two in the waning seconds, Michigan State just might take the ball out of Neitzel’s hands. That, of course, is only so he can maneuver his way through screen for a 15-foot jumper. If the ball stays in his hands, the Spartans will clear the lane, letting Neitzel drive to the hoop and will the ball into the basket (a la against Texas in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic). Or, if Neitzel has the hot hand from outside, he’ll unconsciously hoist a 3-pointer and wait for the swish. Trailing by three in the closing seconds, Neitzel is basically the Spartans’ only viable option. Still, he can find a way to get open and launch the triple.

In a tie ball game, Izzo has shown no fear of going into overtime. That said, the possible winning basket would bring all five guys on the floor into play. Neitzel can drive and dish to Walton, Joseph or super freshman Raymar Morgan for a mid- to long-range jumper. The Spartans also might get the ball in the post and see if Marquis Gray can muscle his way to the hoop or if 6-foot-10 Goran Suton can use his length for an easy score.

Regardless of the situation, these Spartans will find a way to get off a decent shot and, win or lose, will learn something to keep in their pocket when March rolls around.

Straw that stirs the drink: When he was still playing both football and basketball for the Spartans, Matt Trannon was the guy who brought the energy and did all the dirty work for Michigan State. But since he’s decided to concentrate solely on a football career, the Spartans were forced to search for a new straw. Enter Marquis Gray, the 6-8, 235-pound sophomore forward. When healthy, Gray has been right alongside Neitzel as the biggest fan favorite in East Lansing. However, injuries forced him to miss all of his freshman campaign (he was later redshirted) and much of last season. This year, Gray hasn’t missed a game and he’s averaging 8.2 points and 6.6 boards a contest. The only reason those numbers aren’t higher is his incredible knack to always find himself in foul trouble.

The straw—or as some people say, the glue—of an Izzo-coached team exudes that toughness and never-say-die mentality. On these Spartans, Gray is that guy.

Impact newcomer: Look no farther than the team’s second-leading scorer, Raymar Morgan. Michigan State’s best freshman since Zach Randolph is averaging 10.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and shoots 50 percent from the field. Oh, and he’s scored in double figures in 11 of the 14 games he’s played (he missed seven games in December because of a stress fracture). Sometimes when you look at a player, you can just see that special quality that makes him great. Morgan has that quality. Whatever it is, it’s proven to make him an asset to the Spartans and a key cog to their success.

Potential pitfall: If the schedule doesn’t slow down the Spartans, the lack of a second go-to-guy might. When a Spartan team with Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Paul Davis can only go 8-8 in the Big Ten and one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, what hope is there for a 1-2-3 punch made up of Neitzel, Morgan and Gray?

In the next six weeks, Izzo will make sure the Spartans have plenty of plays for guys other than his super point guard. It will be up to those players to make them work.

How to reach Sweet 16: Was Bradley really one of the best 16 teams in the country last season? If you said yes—especially if you reside outside of Peoria, Illinois—you’re kidding yourself. What Bradley did, as a No. 13 seed I might add, was play stifling defense against two great opponents (the Braves downed fourth-seeded Kansas 77-73 in the first round and then suffocated fifth-seeded Pitt 72-66 to reach the Sweet 16).

Talent wise, the Spartans are not a Top 25 team. They’re one of those on-the-cusp teams that will fluctuate in and out of the rankings between quality wins and disappointing losses. Still, the Spartans are playing like a Top 10 team on the defensive end of the floor and that could be the difference between a one-and-done NCAA Tournament experience and playing on the second weekend. Izzo undoubtedly will have his players ready for any opponent and will stress defense and rebounding as being the keys to success. Led by a coach that has reached the Sweet 16 six times in 10 years (not to mention four Final Fours and five Elite Eights) the intangibles likely will always favor Michigan State. If the team can gain some confidence by notching at least a split with both Ohio State and Wisconsin in the regular season, then a Sweet 16, or dare I say even a Final Four appearance, could be in the cards. The bracket, of course, would also have to do the Spartans some favors to make such a deep run a realistic goal. But you can never count a Michigan State team out.

–Chris Mackinder

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