On the sidelines, Tom Izzo reverses the narrative

Monday, February 25, 2019 - 9:09pm

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo adjusted his team's defensive strategy, stifling the Wolverines in a 77-70 win Sunday.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo adjusted his team's defensive strategy, stifling the Wolverines in a 77-70 win Sunday. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Tom Izzo was standing at the podium and making a point about defense when the shout came.

Hey Tom! Hey Tom! Hey Tom!

A fan on the Crisler Center staircase — it didn’t matter what colors he wore — wanted Izzo’s attention. The Michigan State coach stopped talking. He leaned his head forward and obliged.

“Yeah, thanks.”

After Sunday, he deserved all the credit he got.

For the last year, the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry has been defined by Izzo’s unwillingness to change — and John Beilein subsequently tearing the Spartans to shreds. Prior to the second matchup between the two last year, the adjustment was out in the open for Izzo to make: put Jaren Jackson Jr. at center to match up with Moritz Wagner, switch ball-screens, neutralize Michigan’s pick-and-pop game.

Instead, Izzo changed nothing. Jackson sat for key stretches of the second half. The Spartans kept hedging ball-screens. Beilein’s offense — predicated on ball-screens with Wagner — hummed to the tune of 75 points, 15 of them from the German. The Wolverines won, easily, and the root cause stood on the sideline.

So, maybe it’s understandable that Beilein didn’t anticipate Izzo would switch up his defense ahead of Sunday’s game. After the fact, it’s certainly easy to understand why Izzo did just that.

Jackson and Wagner are both long gone, but on Sunday, Michigan State switched screens anyway. Beilein and the Wolverines were caught off-guard, forced to play one-on-one basketball. The result: a 77-70 win for the Spartans — one in which Michigan totaled all of six assists, its lowest since last year’s national title game against Villanova.

“We have certain habits that are not good for some one-on-one situations,” Beilein said. “And we’re trying to break those habits, but when that’s been going on for 10 years, it’s hard to break it in the short time we have.”

Izzo’s adjustments worked and worked well. By the end of the game, Michigan was left with multiple scoreless stretches and no answer to the question of who should get the ball late.

“We didn’t make the right decisions at times,” said freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis. “I feel like we could’ve definitely done better offensively, for sure, that (there) was definitely matchups and stuff that we could’ve went to. I feel like we’re gonna be more ready next time.”

On the other sideline, Beilein tried playing off Michigan State’s Kenny Goins, daring the center to shoot. He hit three 3-pointers in the first half, all of them wide open.

Michigan’s defense — ranked third in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency — gave up its most points per possession all year. It forced just six turnovers. It let the Spartans get to the free throw line 30 times.

For a group whose identity rests on doing the exact opposite, getting picked apart by Izzo and guard Cassius Winston was a rude awakening.

Even when junior guard Zavier Simpson managed to get over ball-screens, Michigan State’s point guard manipulated space in a way befitting of the likely Big Ten Player of the Year winner. He scored 27 points, and the Wolverines could do nothing about most of them.

But when the topic of ball-screen defense came up late in the press conference, Beilein was a little more revealing.

“(Winston’s) gonna get himself into a one-on-one situation with (Jon) Teske,” Beilein said. And he’s deceptive enough to get around him a couple times. A couple of times, (Simpson) wanted to get back but (Simpson) didn’t have leverage yet. So then he got back and there, (Winston’s) going into the basket.

“So, we’re a really good ball-screen defense team. We werent good today. And credit him.”

Credit Winston if you want — you wouldn’t be wrong. But in a rivalry defined by two Hall of Famers on the sideline — one future, one current — the latter came out on top.