Michigan State has certainly improved its quality of play since the Michigan game on Jan. 26. Since then the Spartans (13-8 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) have wheeled off three straight victories over Indiana, twice, and Illinois.
A "big" reason for the Spartans turnaround has been 6-10 freshman Paul Davis. In the game at Crisler Arena, Davis was reamed out by MSU head coach Tom Izzo for not hustling to track down an inbounds pass, that was swiped away by Michigan guard Daniel Horton.
Since that incident Paul Davis has been nothing short of incredible. In his last three games he is averaging 14 points and 6.7 rebounds, counting his last outing against Indiana on Saturday when he scored a career-high 21 points to lead MSU to the 67-62 overtime win.
Izzo has praised the youngsters play and work ethic and said he doesnt very often single out players, but he felt the situation called for it.
"Paul has made big progress," Izzo said. "I think he realized theres an urgency when you play at this level. And we laugh about the Michigan thing and I guess everybody, including me, has made fun of it, but I also think theres a time where you have to grow up and you got to figure out what it takes.
"I made a big deal of that for a reason. Very seldom do I single out a player on something like that, but I had a gut feel that we needed it and he needed it."
Not only does Izzo think that Davis has took the message to heart and is playing his best basketball of the year, he had a lot more compliments to lay on the freshman.
"I think hes the most talented big man weve had here maybe ever," he said. "Id say when you look at offense and defense and rebounding, athleticism, intelligence, I mean Paul I think has all the qualities to be a great, great player before hes done."
Alan of all Trades
Losing sophomore forward Alan Anderson to an injury during a crucial stretch of the Big Ten season is not what the Spartans had in mind.
The 6-6 forward suffered a dislocation of his pinkie and is expected to miss 2-3 weeks.
Izzo said that without him in the lineup, not only is it hurting his development, but the entire team.
Sophomore guard Chris Hill, may be the one player that may have the toughest time because he will take the bulk of the responsibility at the point guard position.
"When on guy gets injured it effects a lot of other people," Izzo said. "Thats why, when you have team like ours right now, where you dont have a true go-to guy, its important that everybody plays their roles and plays them well.
"Chriss role is to shoot, and yet in fairness to him we got to keep getting more opportunities that are within the offense and thats more difficult when hes playing the point and when hes not."
Izzo said another thing the Spartans will be lacking is Andersons leadership role. Anderson has emerged as a vocal leader, who know must do so from the sidelines.
"His enthusiasm in practice for three weeks has been great and I think its really helped this team and so even though he can do it from the bench, its not the same as between the line."
Down the stretch they come
After winning three straight Big Ten contests, the Spartans have risen to a tie with Minnesota for third in the conference.
The Spartans and their four losses arent completely out of it, but Izzo still believes it's an uphill battle.
"If we get this win (Wisconsin) I guess wed be somewhat back in the race," he said. "Now you look at it like well be in there and that doesnt mean well win all our home games, well get a chance to win some home games.
"I just dont know if some of those teams have to lose as many games. I think four losses is still definitely going to win the league, I dont know if itll get to five."
The Spartans success can be correlated to their aggressive defense theyve been playing in the second half.
MSUs defense is holding opponents to 34.7 percent shooting from the field in the second frame. Izzo said the team has began to transfer slowly into the previous Spartan teams.
"Were getting tougher as a team, which is another area where my ignorance had to be rebuilt in this team," he said. "You know it wasnt passed down. I told you earlier I was hard on this team and I think rightfully so, because we had to develop that again. I think were starting to develop some toughness."
Former Spartan star Jason Richardson had quite a performance in the NBAs All-Star Saturday night.
The Golden State Warrior wrapped up his second consecutive slam dunk title on a sick between-the-legs, one-handed reverse dunk in the last round to score a perfect 50 and secure the win.
Izzo said he taught Richardson that move and was able to watch the highlights after his return from Bloomington, Ind.
"Hey, were proud of him and what he accomplished, that was an incredible dunk," he said.
Izzo, however, did not comment on Richardsons play in the rookie-sophomore game in which he bounced the ball off Cleveland Cavalier rookie Carlos Boozers head, before draining a long jump-shot.
Izzo did say that it wasnt like JR.
Freshman guard Maurice Ager, had four stitches in his chin after falling face first on to the hardwood floor. Izzo said Ager woke up dizzy and was not able to practice on Sunday. He remains questionable for todays practice and Tuesdays game with Wisconsin. Izzo said that trainers have not ruled out a possible concussion.
Freshman center Paul Davis, who sprained his ankle in overtime against Indiana, did practice on Sunday, but could only go for half the time. Izzo said he expects to play against Wisconsin, but does not know at what capacity.
Sophomore forward Alan Anderson is still out two and a half more weeks, Izzo said. He said there really is no way to get him back any sooner.