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November 19, 2009
Around the Rim
Spartans Aim for Another Title

by John Perrotto

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The Big Ten Conference’s annual football grudge match will be played Saturday when Ohio State visits Michigan.

OK, it’s not a big deal this year. The Buckeyes have clinched the conference title and the Wolverines’ program is in disarray under Rich Rodriguez.

So what does that have to do with basketball, particularly since this isn't Football Outsiders? Well, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, a football guy at heart, looks at two iconic gridiron programs like Ohio State and Michigan and is amazed.

“It’s the greatest thing about the sport, those programs where the tradition runs so deep and the former player keep coming back,” Izzo said. “It’s very special for a university.”

A case can be made that Izzo has built the basketball equivalent in his 15 seasons in East Lansing. He has led the Spartans to five Final Fours, including a national championship in 2000, along with five regular-season Big Ten titles and a conference-record 12 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State is a strong national title contender this season as it returns three starters from a team that went 31-7 and lost to North Carolina in the national championship last April in Detroit. Just as obvious as Kansas was to begin the preseason ranked No. 1, the Spartans were a surefire No. 2.

Michigan State was the sentimental favorite to win the title game last season, even if North Carolina was an overwhelming favorite. The Final Four was played at Ford Field in Detroit, a city ravaged by hard economic times and the near collapse of the American automotive industry.

While Izzo felt the pain of getting that close to a second title before losing, he will always think back to the 2009 Final Four with pride.

“What I’ll remember the most is we had in the neighborhood of 200-some of our former players there at the Final Four,” Izzo said. “That's what I love about it. When you've got people coming back and you realize that it's not for one team but it's for your program. That's the next goal. That's the next step. And still somewhere in there I'd like to win another championship for our university. I know how meaningful it would be for so many people beyond just those who are currently in our program.”

Michigan State is primed to make a run with junior point guard Kalin Lucas, senior forward Raymar Morgan and sophomore forward Delvon Roe as the returning starters.

Lucas and Morgan accounted for over half the Spartans’ possessions and shots last season. Lucas took 25.8 percent of the shots and was involved in 25.3 percent of the possessions while Morgan, despite being weakened by mononucleosis for much of the conference season, finished with percentages of 24.5 and 25.9.

Lucas has averaged 20.0 points/2.5 rebounds/3.0 assists and 30.5 minutes in Michigan State’s first two games this season. Morgan has been hobbled by a sprained ankle and his line is 8.0/3.0/1.5/15.5. Junior guard Durrell Summers, who started 13 games last season, has stepped up his game with 19.0/7.5/1.0/28.5 averages.

Though 2-0 in the early going, the Spartans’ performances have been uneven. They blew out Florida Gulf Coast 97-58 in the opener then had to rally late to beat Gonzaga, which has 10 new players on its roster, 75-71 on Tuesday night at home.

“They punched us in the mouth, picked us up off the ground then punched us in the mouth again,” Izzo said of Gonzaga.

Izzo frets that his team might be exposed during a strong non-conference schedule that includes trips to North Carolina and Texas in December and talks of the possibility of having five losses before conference play begins. Of course, that is Izzo. Even with five Final Four appearances on his resume, he has greater aspirations.

“Tradition is built on consistency, competitiveness and championships,” Izzo said. “That’s the triple-double I want for our program and we’re still not there yet.”

Wall Starting to Build Legacy

Freshman guard John Wall, the likely No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft, has played one collegiate game. Yet he is already a Kentucky legend.

Wall made quite the debut Monday night as Kentucky rallied from 18 points down at home to beat Miami (Ohio) 72-70 and avoid a major upset. Wall hit a 15-foot jumper with 0.5 seconds left to win the game despite suffering from leg cramps that nearly forced him to the sidelines in the final minutes.

“The play he made at the end, he had one thought: Win the game,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “That is what you have to have. You have to have that catalyst.”

Wall played 38 minutes and had 19 points, five assists and five rebounds. He admitted to being nervous.

“It was kind of like back in my high school days when we got down and I tried to do everything myself,” Wall said. “Coach Calipari took me over to the side at (one point in the first half) and said, ‘You can’t do it by yourself.’ Then I took a couple of minutes break, told him I was ready, that I needed my teammates and I just started making plays I should have been making from the start.”

Wall is the most-hyped freshman in the nation and Kentucky freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins can see why.

“The hype he has had is all true,” Cousins said. “John Wall is legit. He’s the real deal. There’s not a guard out there that’s better than him. I said to him after the game, “John, you just started your legacy.’”

Thomas Off to Poor Start

Isiah Thomas began transforming the Knicks into a laughingstock during his two seasons as their coach from 2006-08 and he isn’t doing much better in the early stages as a college coach as Florida International is 1-3, notching their first victory on Tuesday night over NAIA Division II Florida Memorial 88-82.

After losing to North Carolina 88-72 in his debut, Thomas returned to the New York metropolitan area last Friday and the Golden Panthers were thumped by Monmouth 99-70 in the opening of the Hawks’ new $57-million arena.

The Monmouth student section was relentless in giving Thomas a hard time. The fans chanted “take Lunesta,” “sexual harassment" and “Anucha Sanders.”

The Lunesta chants referred to Thomas’ accidental overdose of sleeping pills last year that was initially thought to be a suicide attempt. The other catcalls were in reference to Sanders, a former Madison Square Garden employee, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment and won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in 2007.

“I’m used to being in a hostile work environment as a former Bad Boy,” said Thomas, referring to playing for the Pistons when they won consecutive NBA titles in the 1989 and 1990. “It’s all in good spirit and good fun. That’s what being a fan is all about. I thought the students were well in line and in bounds with the chants.”

However, Thomas seemed to be feeling the heat of Florida International’s poor start during an 81-49 loss at Tulsa on Sunday. With the Golden Panthers down 63-25 with nine minutes left, Thomas began shouting at Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik to remove his starters.

“I don't press and I don't embarrass anybody but it’s a 40-minute game, and I'm in this game to get better,” Wojcik said. “I've never seen anything like that. It was very bizarre."

St. Peter's Wins Early

Monmouth was in the national spotlight again Tuesday when it made the hour-long trip from West Long Branch to Jersey City in the middle of the night to meet New Jersey rival St. Peter’s in the rarest of games, one with a 6 a.m. start. It was part of ESPN’s round-the-clock marathon of college basketball and the schools agreed to play at that hour for some much-needed national exposure.

St. Peter’s rolled to a 58-34 victory but that was overshadowed by the weird starting time.

“I was a little concerned when I came in at about 5 a.m. and our players were dancing around the locker room to music,” St. Peter’s coach John Dunne said. “I was hoping they wouldn’t lose their energy through the course of the next three hours. They were really juiced.”

Peacocks junior point guard Nick Leon said he barely slept but that adrenaline ruled the day.

“I was actually up at 3:30 because I couldn’t sleep,” Leon said. “Going through my mind was just basketball, trying to get this win for the team and for the program, especially on ESPN.”

Even though his team took the loss, Monmouth coach Dave Calloway would like an early-morning rematch next year at the Hawks’ new arena.

“Same bat time, same bat channel,” Calloway said.

St. Peter’s victory came after a 53-51 loss to Seton Hall in its opener last Friday. Perhaps winning at sunrise counts more in the Pomeroy Rankings because the Peacock stood a surprising fourth in the nation through Tuesday’s games behind Clemson, Louisville and Tennessee.

Odds and Ends

Oregon’s Tajuan Porter now holds the school career three-point field goal record with 290 … Oakland’s Keith Benson tied a school record with eight blocked shots in an 81-77 loss to Eastern Michigan last Saturday ...Illinois’ Brandon Paul set a school record for points in a collegiate debut as he scored 22 in 96-69 victory over SIU-Edwardsville last Friday. The old record of 21 was set by Deon Thomas in 1990 against American-Puerto Rico … Ohio State’s Evan Turner had 14 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in a 100-60 victory over Alcorn State on Nov. 9 for the second triple-double in school history. Dennis Hopson had the other against Ohio University in 1986 … Michigan’s Manny Harris also had the second triple-double in his school’s history with 18 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 97-50 victory over Northern Michigan. Gary Grant had the other in 1987 against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament … Air Force’s Grant Parker scored 26 points in a 65-54 victory against Western State last Friday, the most by a Falcons’ player in an opener since Jarmica Reese had 37 against Doane in 1997 … Providence’s Jamine Peterson’s 22 rebounds in a 79-77 victory over Mercer on Sunday were the most by a Friars player since Michael Smith had 26 in 1994 against Syracuse … La Salle’s Aaric Murray had 16 points and 11 rebounds in a in an 83-80 victory over Hampton on Saturday to become the first Explorers player to record a double-double in his collegiate debut since Michael Brooks in 1976 … Velton Jones became the first player in Robert Morris history to lead the Colonials in scoring in his first collegiate game as he had 15 points in a 100-60 loss to Syracuse … John Dickson became the first true freshman to start in an opener for Sacramento State since 1998 … Harvard coach Tommy Amaker won his 200th career game, 87-77 over Holy Cross last Friday … Arizona’s 87-70 victory over Northern Arizona on Sunday gave Sean Miller the biggest margin of victory by a Wildcats’ coach in his debut in the last 84 years … Northern Colorado won its 1,000th game with an 81-75 victory over Hawaii on Monday … Arizona State’s 52-point victory (87-35) over Western Illinois last Friday was the Sun Devils’ largest margin of victory since another 52-point win over Houston Baptist in 1996 and the least points they had allowed since holding Saint Louis to 34 during the 1949-50 season …Portland State’s 56-point loss (111-55) to Washington on Sunday represented the biggest margin of defeat in school defeat … Monmouth 99 points against Florida International was its most since scoring 102 against Long Island in 1997 … Rider set a school record with 16 three-point field goals in an 86-71 victory over Lehigh on Saturday … IUPUI shot 67 percent (33-for-49) from the field in an 88-82 victory over Drake last Saturday, a school record since the Jags joined Division I … Santa Clara shot 45 free throws in a 79-55 victory over NAIA Division II Menlo on Monday, the Broncos’ most since shooting 47 against San Francisco in 1993.

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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Around the Rim (11/12)
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Around the Rim (11/25)
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Changing of the Guard (11/19)

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