Izzo, Michigan State take on all comers

Spartans coach has put his team through brutal early-season schedule

National notebook

December 19, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Tom Izzo surely didn't think the nonconference schedule he put together for his Michigan State team would turn the Spartans from national championship contenders into the biggest bust in college basketball this season.

Was it a lack of humility or foresight that caused Izzo to book trips to Kansas, UCLA and Syracuse on top of home games against Duke, Oklahoma and Kentucky?

"I've learned a lot, I can see why some guys schedule some ways," Izzo said this week on the Big Ten teleconference. "I said earlier that we bit off a little more than we could chew."

The Spartans have been swallowed up by the rigorous competition. While Michigan State has shown improvement since losing to the Blue Devils by 22 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, it hasn't been enough.

"The only regret I have is the timing of the thing, maybe not putting a more, should I say, winnable game in between and giving us more time to practice," said Izzo.

After ending a three-game losing streak with Tuesday's home win over South Florida, the 4-4 Spartans will take on UCLA in Los Angeles tomorrow.

When he made the schedule last spring, Izzo was counting on sophomore forward Erazem Lorbek to build off the promise he had shown as a freshman and top recruit Brandon Cotton to step in at point guard.

Lorbek, who averaged a little more than six points and three rebounds last season, chose instead to make himself available for the NBA draft and signed with an agent. He went undrafted and is now playing in Europe.

Cotton, who, along with fellow freshman shooting guard Shannon Brown, was supposed to give the Spartans the Big Ten's backcourt of the future, has played just a few minutes because of a stress fracture in his right foot.

"There's always issues and always reasons, but probably the biggest reason is that we've played some good people," said Izzo. "We've done enough good things to be in enough games with a minute or two left in three of the four, but not finding a way a win, that's concerning."

The departure of Lorbek, a good outside shooter, has enabled teams to double up on 6-foot-11 sophomore Paul Davis inside. Davis struggled early, and Michigan State went from the Big Ten's top rebounding team the past six years (and one of the nation's best) into a team barely out-rebounding the opposition.

That wasn't Izzo's only area of concern.

The Spartans, always one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten, have been ranked last in field-goal percentage defense (46.8). Against South Florida, Izzo moved Jason Andreas back into the power forward spot, and had point guard Alan Anderson coming off the bench.

"We are struggling at power forward right now, we have been struggling a little bit at the point," said Izzo. "[Alan] Anderson is a very good player that has struggled a little bit. Then losing Cotton has hurt a little bit."

Cotton could be back for tomorrow's game against UCLA. That will help Anderson, a 6-4 junior who has been hurt by moving from shooting guard to the point.

"I think a guy has to want to do something before he can," Izzo said of Anderson earlier this week. "Sometimes your confidence does get taken away when you get pasted like we did a few times."

Moving on

When Akron freshmen Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce III walked into North Carolina's Smith Center on Sunday, it was as if they were going back in time. Not too far back, in fact only to last season.

"My high school career prepared me for college more than I thought it would," said Travis, a 6-6 forward. "That [playing at North Carolina] wasn't new for me. I've been in a hostile environment. It was like another day at the office."

The office was a lot more hectic than last year. Travis and Joyce were teammates at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School with LeBron James, and had been part of the circus-like atmosphere that followed James.

Their new life is quite different.

"It has its ups and downs," said Joyce, a 5-7 guard. "We got a lot of attention last year everywhere we went. After you get used to all that attention everyone is giving you, you kind of miss it sometimes."

Said Travis, a 6-6 forward, "Now it feels good to be a normal person sometimes. Sometimes people still come up to me and say, 'You played with LeBron James?' Sometimes it feels good to be noticed."

Both Travis and Joyce have been noticed for their own accomplishments this season.

Travis scored a season-high 13 points in 21 minutes against the Tar Heels, while Joyce had 10 points in his college debut against Cincinnati and played 35 minutes against Radford.

Cardinal wins

Stanford has quietly put together one of the more impressive starts in college basketball this season, winning its first six games despite not playing with senior forward Josh Childress. The team's top returning scorer from last season has been out with a stress fracture in the left foot.

With a victory over then-No. 1 ranked Kansas a couple of weeks ago, the Cardinal gave notice that it should be more than a one-team race (Arizona being that team) in the Pac-10 this season. Stanford, now ranked ninth, hosts No. 13 Gonzaga tomorrow in the Pete Newell Challenge.

"You look around, and we have 15 guys who are pretty good," said Childress, who expects to be back for the start of the conference season.

What's even more amazing is that the Cardinal has played its past two games without point guard Chris Hernandez, who led the team in scoring before suffering from back spasms. Hernandez will be needed against Gonzaga and its All-America candidate, Blake Stepp.

"Josh is our best player, and Chris is No. 2," said guard Matt Lottich. "Hopefully, we'll be able to play team ball once they're back, and that will make us even better."

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