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  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Spring 2012

MEN’S HOOPS EARNS 7TH TITLE IN IZZO ERA

In another memorable season for coach Tom Izzo, the unranked, youthful Spartan cagers coalesced into a championship unit after a zero-for-two start.

Tom Izzo’s best teams usually gel down the season’s stretch.they tend to become more cohesive on defense, more relentless on the boards and execute with more precision on offense. Most importantly, they win.

One national analyst calls it “the Izzo factor,” which he often invokes to explain why his picks In the NCAA tournament lost to MSU.

And so it went, again, in 2011-12. With two games still left in the regular season, MSU had clinched a share of the Big Ten title—Izzo’s seventh as head coach.

It was a remarkable achievement for a team that entered the Season unranked. MSU faced The departure of two senior stars and the premature loss of four players—including star forward Delvon Roe, who retired from basketball of chronic knee injuries.MSU had no sure re NBA prospects. Many experts did not think it would be easy for Izzo to initiate four newcomers into his system—freshmen Branden Dawson, Brandan Kearney and Travis Trice, and Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood.

The team started 0-2, losing to No. 1 North Carolina aboard the USS Carl Vinson and to No. 6 Duke in Madison Square Garden.Not afraid to face power teams, Izzo merely chalked o these losses as lessons for a young team.

But then MSU managed a surprising 15 straight wins—including victories at No. 23 Gonzaga (away) and against Florida State, which eventually made the Top 20.
With every game, one could see small steps toward improvement.

“In the preseason, our realistic goal was to make constant improvement,” says Izzo. “As we grew, we realized we could be better.We’re definitely reassessing.there are bigger things that we can achieve.”

After mid-season hiccups at Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan, MSU began an impressive surge that saw double-digit wins over No. 23 Michigan, No.3 Ohio State in Columbus and No. 15 Wisconsin. MSU led the nation with 6 wins over ranked teams—three of them road Wins—and 7 wins against the RPI Top 25. According to ESPN.com, MSU ranked No. 2 in strength of schedule.  the Spartans climbed to No. 5 in the Coaches poll while ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi penciled MSU in as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

How did MSU leap from Unranked to a potential top seed?With defense and rebounding, and great senior leadership. At season’s end, the Spartans were holding opponents to a .375 shooting percentage, third-best in the nation and the best in the Izzo era. MSU was also enjoying a +10 rebounding margin, third-best in the nation and considerably better than last year’s +4 margin.

Player chemistry helped. About 3 of every 5 MSU baskets involved an assist. Even prolific scorers like sophomore guard Keith Appling often passed up shots so a teammate could take a better shot.

“It’s a lot of fun being a part of this team,” says Draymond “Day Day” Green. “We want to be with each other. We want to come to practice.”

As ESPN analyst Sean Farnham put it, “MSU is everything it was not last year—the chemistry is better, they’re tougher and (they’re) beasts on the boards. Tom Izzo consistently gets his team to elevate their play come March.”

The catalyst for this late surge was senior forward Draymond Green, who was not only averaging over 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists a game but also providing on-court leadership in the manner of Mateen Cleaves And Travis Walton. Green could be nicknamed a “Master of All Trades.” Before the conference tournament, Green was already third in school history with 105 blocks, fourth in career rebounds (1,000), and   h in career steals (163) . He joined Johnny Green and Greg Kelser as the only Spartans in history to boast more than 1,000 career points and rebounds.At Gonzaga, he scored an astonishing 34 points. Green earned consensus Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was also mentioned in national POY discussions.

Fellow senior Austin Thornton emerged as a role player extraordinaire; The former walk-on actually broke into the starting lineup in February.

As is typical with Izzo teams, different players stepped up during the season. Seven different players managed to lead the team in scoring in a game.

Prolific scorer Appling learned to play point guard and to distribute the ball. He spearheaded MSU’s 15-0 lead in fast-break points over the Badgers at the Breslin Center, and his assist-toturnover ratio improved as the season unfolded. Derrick Nix, slimmer and trimmer, became a reliable scorer in the paint Along with Adreian Payne, who scored 15 points in the upset in Columbus while helping contain All-American Jared Sullinger.Talented freshman Dawson showcased his offensive rebounding prowess and the skills and athleticism that made him a McDonald’s All-American— notably with a windmill jam at Purdue. Transfer senior Wood meshed well and provided needed  repower; his 13 points at Minnesota helped prevent a ruinous upset. Redshirt freshmen Alex Gauna and Russell Byrd, Kearney and Trice provided valuable minutes as well.

Helping Izzo as assistants are Dwayne Stephens, Dane Fife and Mike Garland. Izzo says that four months ago, he would not have believed that this year’s team would contend for a conference title, much less for a top NCAA seed. But the dramatic surge earned him his third Big Ten Coach of Year honors. He also earned his 400th victory—which came against Minnesota at home—in addition to having made an amazing six Final Fours in the last 13 seasons.

In March, knowledgeable Spartans expect the Izzo factor to emerge.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL FIGHTS TO THE FINISH

The defending Big Ten champions won 7 of their last 8 regular season games to finish in a tie for second place and to return to the NCAA tournament.

The MSU women’s basketball  finished second in the Big Ten regular season, earning a 19-10 record overall, 11-5 in the conference. Highlights for head coach Suzy Merchant included sweeps of No. 11 Penn State and Michigan and wins over No. 17 Purdue and No. 23 Nebraska.

MSU made a late-season statement by winning 7 of its last 8 games, including a rousing 67-52 overtime win over Purdue before a home crowd of 13,424.

The February surge was paced by two seniors, guard Porsche Poole and center Lykendra Johnson. Poole, who averaged over 13 points a game while shooting over 46 percent for the season, was hitting on all cylinders in the final stretch and averaging 20 points and nearly 5 assists a game. Last year’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Johnson averaged over 10 points and 8 rebounds a game and became one of only  five Big Ten players in history to surpass 1,000 points, 900 rebounds, 200 steals and 100 blocks. She ranked second in MSU history in career rebounds with 992 at the end of the regular season. Johnson has been called the “heart and soul” of the team by Merchant.

MSU’s season began with mixed results. the Spartans played exceptionally well in stretches, but suffered five away losses in November and December. For the second straight year, 6-7 Center Madison Williams, a MacDonald’s All-American, had a season-ending ACL injury early in the season.

In the conference season, the Spartans began with four straight wins—including an upset of eventual champions Penn State in State College. But MSU then suffered a four-game losing streak. Down the stretch, however, MSU regained the winning touch, winning 7 of the next 8 games, stubbing their toes only at Iowa.

Kiana Johnson, freshman point guard from Chicago, emerged as a floor leader and at season’s end was averaging a 2.0 assist to turnover ratio—the second best in the nation for freshmen. “We have to have her at the point just because of her decision making and her ability to direct the team,” explains Merchant.

Many other Spartans contributed this season. Senior guard Taylor Alton was MSU’s leading three-point threat; she made more than 100 treys in her career, about half of them this season.

Sophomore wing Klarissa Bell was able to crack the starting lineup late in the season, and became a productive force—making timely treys and key baskets down the stretch. Freshman forward Becca Mills was the first Spartan to win a Big Ten Freshman of the Week award. Key reserves included Annalise Pickrel, Courtney Schiffauer and Jasmine Thomas. Freshman center Jasmine Hines provided some solid inside play.

MSU averaged 7,505 per game in attendance, a record besting last year’s 7,388 average. The attendance at the Breslin Center ranked second best in the conference and ninth best in the nation. Helping Merchant were assistants Shane Clipfell, Tempie Brown and NcKell Copeland. In the past four seasons, MSU has produced 15 All-Big Ten selections, best in the league. For the tenth straight season, MSU mustered double-digit Big Ten wins.

ICE HOCKEY RESURGENCE—It did not take long for new head coach Tom Anastos to begin to revitalize MSU’s ice hockey program. For the first time in years, some games were near-sellouts. So is the team’s competitiveness and national ranking, which rose as high as 13th in the USCHO poll late in the season. Junior Korey Krug became the first defenseman in 25 seasons to win the CCHA scoring title— notching 29 points, with 11 goals. “that’s an incredible feat,” notes Anastos. Goalie Will Yanake performed at a high level, stopping the puck at a .927 clip with a 2.32 GAA. the icers are clearly taking to the coaching from assistants Kelly Miller and Tom Newton, and goalie coach Mike Gilmore, as they finished strong to notch a 19-13-4 record (14-11-3-2 in the CCHA) along with a bye in the league playoffs.

OUTBACK BOWL WIN— MSU’s 33-30 triple overtime win over Georgia at the 2012 Outback Bowl marked its first bowl win since 2001 and Dantonio’s first in five tries at MSU. The Spartans trailed 16-0 at halftime but came back strong. Members of the senior class earned their 37th career win, an all-time MSU record. Seniors included quarterback Kirk Cousins, guard Joel Foreman, tight end Brian Linthicum, full back Todd Anderson, safety Trenton Robinson, defensive tackles Kevin Pickleman and Jonathan Strayhorn, and wide receivers B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Keith Nichol.

THE BOSS RULES—Big Ten baseball coaches voted MSU as the preseason favorites to win this year’s championship. Fresh off winning its first Big Ten regular-season title in 32 years last season, the MSU baseball team was the top pick, followed by Purdue at No. 2. MSU returns 25 players from last year’s squad, including Torsten Boss, Tony Bucciferro and Ryan Jones—all first-team All-Big Ten honorees last season. Boss earned preseason All-America accolades from Louisville Slugger. the Spartans are led by Jake Boss Jr. (no relation to Torsten), the 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year.

MAGIC MAKES $1 MILLION GIFT—On the heels of a $1 million gift to MSU athletics by Tom Izzo and his family, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who served as MSU honorary captain at the Carrier Classic basketball game, has donated $1 million to MSU athletics. Chuck Sleeper, director of the Spartan Fund, notes that both Izzo and Magic have been very similar in terms of motivation and also in how they plan to help MSU athletics and MSU athletes. Sleeper adds that Magic’s gift will go to an endowed basketball scholarship and to the North End-Zone Facility. Magic has also announced that his TV network, Aspire, will debut on June 30. “I wanted a vehicle to show positive images and to have stories written, produced and directed by African Americans for our community,” says Magic. “Aspire—that’s how I’ve been leading my life.”

LOWES SENIOR CLASS AWARD—Quarterback Kirk Cousins (middle with Mark Hollis and Mark Dantonio) won the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award for 2011—an award for “notable achievements in four areas of excellence—community, classroom, character and competition.” Says Cousins, “It’s very humbling . . . It goes without saying that our coaching staff, my teammates, and our program in general is a classy organization, and by being around them, it gives me a chance to win an incredible award such as this.” A four-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, Cousins boasts a 3.684 cumulative GPA and has volunteered to help many community organizations ranging from the pediatric ward at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing to countless church and youth Organizations. He holds MSU records for passing touchdowns (65) , completions (696) and his career completion rate (64 percent).

POWERS GOLF—Junior Golfer Caroline Powers carded the best 54-hole tournament score in MSU women’s golf history with an 8-under 208 (69-68-71) at the Tar Heel Invitational at the University of North Carolina’s Finley Golf Course. Powers, who broke the previous record of 210 shot by Rachel (Meikle) Lubahn at the Northwestern Invitational in April 2006, tied for second overall. The tournament featured 15 teams ranked in the Top 50 of the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. Powers also tied a single-round MSU record with a 68 on her second round.

NEW RECRUITS FILL NEEDS

The momentum generated by back to back 11-win seasons, the Legends championship and the Outback Bowl victory continued in February as MSU announced 18 recruits for 2012. MSU cast a wider net than normal, as only four players are from Michigan. Among them was the state’s No. 1-ranked player—the third straight year the toprated in-state player chose to be a Spartan. MSU took seven from Ohio, two each from Florida and Pennsylvania, and one each from Georgia, Indiana and Oregon.

In addition, Sophomore Wide Receiver DeAnthony Arnett, a highlyranked recruit in 2011, transferred to MSU from Tennessee.

MSU took four wide receivers and four defensive backs. Mark Dantonio, who coached defensive backs, calls this group perhaps the most promising of any such group he has had.

“Just like recruiting is basically going to set the tone for you as you move forward, tomorrow will be all about winter conditioning, and the next phase will be about spring practice,” notes Mark Dantonio.