(East Lansing) With just two days remaining before MSU takes the court for its Big Ten home opener against Ohio State on Thursday, head coach Tom Izzo said his team is still capable of competing for a league title.
"Even though things dont look quite as rosy as I like or you like them, I do think this team still has a great chance to win a Big Ten Championship," Izzo said at his Monday press conference. "I still think this team has a chance to be a very good basketball team, I think we just got to short-arm a couple areas and stay healthy. And if we do those two things, I think 2003 will be great."
Some of the problems Izzo said had to be corrected were the abundance of turnovers during the non-conference schedule and the teams recent inefficiency to make free throws.
MSU (8-4) in 12 games has turned the ball over 195 times for an average of 16.3 per game. Against Oklahoma several turnovers led to easy scores for the Sooners, who prevailed 60-58. Sophomore guard Chris Hill, who has had trouble turning the ball over this season, led the team with six.
The Spartans have also struggled at the charity stripe. In the first seven games the Spartans were shooting at a 77 percent clip, tops in the Big Ten. The last five games have seen the team shot just 67 percent from the line, to dip the overall mark to 72 percent.
Despite these two downfalls, Izzo remains confident that the team still has a lot to build on.
"The good news is I think the free throw shooting is correctable," he said. "Yet I still think if we can stay injury-free, theres really some things we can build on. The freshmen played pretty well at Oklahoma in tough circumstances both (Maurice) Ager, (Paul) Davis and (Erazem) Lorbek to be honest with you all played pretty well. Were gonna try to build on that."
Ager scored a season-high 12 points and Davis, who got his first career start, scored eight points and pulled down a season-high nine boards.
What lies ahead?
Though Spartans enter the Big Ten coming off two losses, teams are still taking aim at a team that has dominated conference play over the last five years.
The Spartans have posted a 64-14 record in that time, including four Big Ten Championships, but Izzo said he expects the Big Ten will be as competitive as ever.
"I think theres four or five teams that could win it," Izzo said. "I think for sure three or four losses is going to win it.
"I just think its going to be a very competitive league, I think its going to a very good league and I think its going to be very tough to win on the road and thats going to probably determine the league champion."
"I say those three teams right now are playing as well as anybody. Ohio State has had some big wins and a couple disappointing losses, Minnesotas been in the same boat. Iowa might be a team that last year they too were a very very good offensive team this year theyre one of the better defensive teams and their playing better."
Speaking of Buckeyes
The Buckeyes (7-4) come to East Lansing after a devastating loss in overtime to Louisville on Saturday looking to knock off a reeling MSU squad.
MSU leads the all-time series 54-45, and has taken the last two from the Buckeyes. In the last meeting the Spartans won 81-76 in Columbus, Ohio.
Izzo said theyre Ohio State should provide some difficult matchups, especially at the guard position, where junior Brent Darby has been red-hot.
"We have concerns with Ohio State, Brent Darby is an awfully difficult matchup for anybody, he plays a lot of minutes and scores a lot of points," he said.
"They have the same two guys that started inside (Zach Williams and Vladimir Radinovic) that they had last year, (Sean) Connolly has played well at times and is a very very good shooter."
Darby comes into the game scoring 18.3 points per game, third in the Big Ten, while dishing out 4.9 assists, good enough for second in the league. Williams leads the team in rebounding with 6.3 rebounds per game and Connolly is averaging 15.4 ppg.
Coming of "Ager"
Freshman guard Maurice Ager played in just fourth game of year against Oklahoma and shared the team-high scoring honors with 12.
Not bad for someone who has only practiced about six or seven times in the last 2 months.
Ager missed the first six games with a stress fracture before making his debut against Kentucky in which he scored five points. Just as things were starting to look bright, Ager fainted during a Christmas Day practice and was hospitalized for two day, forcing him to miss the Jacksonville State and Toledo games.
Now that 6-foot-4 guard has overcome these adversities, Izzo hopes this sensational guard can continue make an impact in the lineup.
"Ive been saying all along that Maurice Ager is the kind of player that we need to play more, because hes got such great athleticism," he said.
Izzo said he is going to allow Ager to have more time on the court playing with the first team in practice and hopefully get him more repetitions. He also said it all depends on his conditioning, but is hopeful to get him more time in live action.
"Whats been difficult to me, is a couple of those guys with injuries, especially a guy that we really need in the playing group like Maurice," he said.
The "Balls" in your court
Forward Adam Ballinger has not played well to say the least this season, but he isnt giving up on this season just yet.
Ballinger who has seen his scoring and minutes diminish this season, following a successful junior season, told Izzo after the Oklahoma game that hell be the one responsible for turning his play around.
"He talked to me about loyalty is a two-way street, kind of what Ive said, but more or less he was saying. Hey dont worry about helping me get out of this, sooner or later Ive got to get out of it. And dont worry about playing me, play me as many minutes as you can play me cause I have to earn them back," Izzo said.
Since Dec. 8, Ballinger has not scored more than six points in the teams last six games.
Izzo said he has "all the faith in the world" that the 6-foot-9 forward can make his last year as a Spartan special.
"You cant fool fifth-year seniors, you can motivate them, you can do a few things thatll help, but a guy knows when hes not playing well," Izzo said. "And right now nobodys made excuses for his struggles.
"I do think hes going to work himself out of it, I really do. He has done it before number one, and number two hes not kidding himself he knows the situation hes in."