Frustrating Spartans bring memories of 2007, Final Four runs

This Michigan State basketball team is frustrating. To fans. To its coaches. To the players themselves.

If you didn’t hear, Draymond Green lit into his teammates in a players’ only meeting after the Spartans defeated Central Connecticut State 89-69 on Wednesday night. Supposedly he was shouting so loudly, that it could be heard through the walls of the locker room.

And this is the most positive thing I can imagine for a young Spartans team that must be one of the most talented — yet currently mediocre — teams in the nation.

Think back to the 2007 edition of the Spartans. It was Drew Neitzel’s senior year, featured a top-ranked class of recruits (Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers) and it seemed like the never could quite put it all together despite finishing with a 27-9 record. Lucas and Neitzel clashed in the backcourt throughout the season — which often became visible on the court. Travis Walton didn’t shoot…ever. Goran Suton was, well, Goran Suton before his senior year — the inconsistent post player who occasional thought he was a point guard and liked shooting threes about as much as Green does now.

This is a team that lost its exhibition opener to Grand Valley State in double overtime. Yup, that happened. They lost on the road at Iowa and Penn State and stumbled to a 12-6 Big Ten record.

Moral of the story: A team that could have had a potentially special year didn’t. Did it lack the leaders? Did it lack the heart? Who knows. But it set the stage for a team that was one of the nation’s best in the following two seasons.

Here we sit in 2011, seeing a similar situation. We have a senior leader in Green, who is so vocal and is not afraid to have his mind heard (a la Tom Izzo). A very impressive group of recruits in Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Brandan Kearney. The experience of Keith Appling is important to this team. Adding Brandon Wood was even more important in its own right. Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix have progressed and are left to fill a hole that Delvon Roe’s departure left.

This team, riddled with inexperienced young talent, has more potential than the team in 2007 had. They have a captain in Green who saw the potential realized in 2008 and 2009 with teams that went to back-to-back Final Fours. And more importantly, in Tom Izzo, they have the coach who will wring and squeeze every last bit of talent out of them.

Izzo, more so than anyone else, has expressed his frustrations with this team publicly. Let’s see…Austin Thornton? Check. Dawson? Check. Alex Gauna? Check. Kearney? Check. Nix? Check. I think you get the picture — he is frustrated with the current batch of Spartans.

Thornton doesn’t shoot the ball, and when he does…well, we all know where this is going…and it’s not in the net. Dawson hasn’t figured out how to guard someone in college yet. Gauna also doesn’t play defense. Kearney weighs less than the the team’s ball boy. Nix has the hands of The Thing from the Fantastic Four.

But despite the frustrating struggles, they all have qualities imperative for this team to succeed.

Why else would Green verbally unleash on them? He sees it — remember he was on the 2008 and 2009 Final Four teams — and he wants every individual to play up to their potential. And they will. That is why he verbally ripped into them Wednesday. Rumor has it such meetings happened last season, but the players were dejected and didn’t find motivation. It showed.

This time, the response seems to be an understanding of the road ahead and the necessary steps. This time, we see a team that improves, and works harder, and says they need to improve. The acknowledgment of their room to grow and improve is essential for the action to follow. They get it.

Imagine if the blend of Trice, Appling and Wood continues to mesh and the right combinations form consistently. Trice already is impressing everyone — and clearly is the love of the media. Appling and Wood are the scorers this team needs, but also need to distribute the ball. These three are figuring things out rapidly.

Think about a healthy Russell Byrd, who isn’t there yet. Think about Nix and Payne combining their respective strength and length to dominate the post.

Think about the fearsome force Dawson can be with some extra attention to his defense and footwork. He has shown he can score and slash with the best of them, but hindered slightly be a knee injury against UNC, he hasn’t arrived.

Imagine a Kearney with muscle to go with the brain that has Izzo raving.

Wait until Izzo finds the rotation he still is figuring out and the players understand each other on the court.

The framework for an incredible team is there, it just needs work to get it there. It won’t be overnight. It wasn’t immediate in 2007, when it took a recruiting class of Green, Roe and Korie Lucious added to the mix. It might take next year’s class of Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello, Kenny Kaminski and five-star Gary Harris to bring this team to its full potential.

But make no mistake, it will get there. Despite the early season questions and doubts, there is a positive vibe from everything this team does.

So why is this team so unbelievably frustrating? Because they can be so unbelievable good. And they will be so unbelievably good.

In Izzo We Trust.

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Posted on December 9, 2011, in Basketball, Recruiting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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