Nice Try Coach Izzo

By Josh Herwitt - November 21, 2007

Oh Coach Izzo, you thought you were so smart. You thought you were so clever.

You thought when UCLA took a timeout with 35 seconds remaining Tuesday night and the score knotted at 63-63 that your 2-3 zone -- after playing man-to-man the entire night -- would confuse the Bruins, that it would disrupt their offensive flow and force someone to score other than Kevin Love.

And you thought you had them when UCLA inbounded the ball, saw the zone and failed to penetrate it as Love struggled to find positioning on the block.

Then suddenly, your grand defensive scheme got burned to pieces.

It got torched by a guy who wasn't expecting to take the game's most important shot with the 35-second clock running down. It got fried by a guy who's only taken seven three-point attempts this year and averaged a meager 33.3 percent last year.

But in the end, it was a Prince from Cameroon and a three-pointer from the wing that sent a dagger straight into the heart of Izzo and the hearts of his Michigan State players.

"I knew it was going in," Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said of his game-winning shot.

And after the way the Spartans walked off the court following Tuesday night's final in the CBE Classic, I'm sure they'll be enjoying that trip back to the Great Lakes State now.

Because as much as everyone has been hyping No. 10 Michigan State, I got a newsflash for all you Spartan fans: Your team choked.

Yeah, that's right. I'll spell it out for you.


You saw that opportunity to upset the No. 2 team (No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today poll) in the country when you ran out to an 11-point lead at halftime (36-25), and you left it in the locker room.

You saw that opportunity to shock the college basketball world early with Love -- who finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds against the Spartans -- getting knocked around against a physical frontcourt that wasn't called for half the fouls they actually committed against the big man, and you neglected to stop him after halftime.

"I knew I was drawing fouls," Love said. "My teammates were just getting me in good position to score. I missed a few easy chip shots in the first half, but I got some back in the second. I was just trying to draw fouls so we can get to the line."

So what happened then?

You forgot that you're playing a team that's been to two straight Final Fours. You forgot that you're playing a team that has every intention of raising No. 12 in the rafters at Pauley Pavilion this April. And you forgot that unlike the teams that Steve Lavin used to coach, Ben Howland's teams don't fold or put their tails between their legs when they're down at halftime.

"I'm really proud of our toughness mentally," Howland said. "The one thing about our team is they never give up. They never give up, ever and that's a sign of mentally-tough kids."

That's right. Howland's kids are fighters. Better yet, they're survivors. And whether or not they're playing their best game of basketball, they find ways to win. That's the mark of a championship-caliber team.

Hard to say the same about those Spartans, a team that lost to Division II Grand Valley State at home and a team that led for 39 minutes and 32 seconds against UCLA.

"We did not deserve to win the way we played in the second half," Izzo admitted. "We were out of synch all night. I still don't know how we scored 36 points in the first half."

And that whole "we had players injured" argument doesn't really work here either. Not when you look at the Bruins, who are still missing two starters and a key reserve from last season.

One of those starters is preseason All-American Darren Collison, the quickest and arguably best point guard in the country (clearly the best in the West), while another is three-point sharpshooter Michael Roll, who will miss around 2-3 weeks before returning for UCLA.

But on Tuesday night, it was the Bruins, not the Spartans, who were stepping up in the clutch. They made plays when they had to, something that Drew Neitzel certainly can't say he did after airballing a game-tying three with 11 ticks left on the clock.

"I didn't feel good all day," Neitzel said afterward. "My adrenaline got going a little and I felt pretty good before the game, but I still had some bad body aches.

"I just didn't have a lot of energy, but I'm not going to use that as an excuse."

Then why even say it? Because the fact is, you are making an excuse, one that can be played up all you want before you welcome Oakland and N.C. State to the Jack Breslin Student Events Center over the next week.

But if there was one game that UCLA was going to lose before starting Pac-10 play in January, it was this one. Just look at the Bruins' schedule and you'll see why.

UCLA has some tough non-conference competition ahead of them in Ivy League favorite Yale, last year's Atlantic 10 champ George Washington and No. 15 Texas, but all of those games are being played in Southern California, a place where the Bruins haven't lost since Dec. 31, 2005.

So look who's jumping on the bandwagon now?

Good ole' Dukie V, er, Dickie V, a guy that hasn't covered a game in Los Angeles for The Worldwide Leader in almost a decade, but somehow knows that Collison is "a terrific kid" after meeting him in the locker room for a few minutes?

Give me a break.

And while I might be tad bit harsh for you Spartan fans right now, you won't see me making embellished statements like Mr. Vitale seems to do with regularity.

But the one thing I do know is, that if Tuesday night was the best Michigan State's got, then it could be a longer year than most people originally thought in East Lansing.

Posted by Josh Herwitt at 01:15 AM on November 21, 2007

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