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September 7, 2006
Dot Comp Archives, 2005 thru Nov. 2006
EAST LANSING - Checking the SpartanMag.com message board mailbag on Wednesday:
SMU Sparty posted on The Underground Bunker:
"In watching the replay of the ND game the other night, one thing that bothered me is that we did not throw the ball deep. I know that we are good at 15, 20 yards,etc, but what about the bombs downfield? I am trying to recall the last time Stanton has thrown a long pass that was complete. Then I saw the Michigan highlights against Minnesota and noticed Henne chucking a few long passes nicely downfield. I am pretty sure that Stanton and our receiving corp are capable, I just wish that we would try some deep passes more often. Anyone else notice this or am I just forgetting some nice pass plays?"
To which I responded:
On the deep passes that I saw, Minnesota was playing with a safety in the box to stop the run against UM. That left them with one safety deep. The safety could help against Manningham, but not Arrington. Or he could help against Arrington or Breaston, but not Manningham.
So UM's read was to go deep, and throw away from the safety.
Minnesota picked their poison. They tried to stop the run and tested their luck with the deep ball. UM capitalized.
Basically, Minnesota's defense invited the deep ball.
As for Illinois, they played with the deepest two safeties I have ever seen at a football game. Those guys were back there like they were expecting MSU to quick kick.
You can't throw deep against that. I guess you can, but the risk reward isn't a good one. Very good chance there would be an interception at some point.
Against a two-very-deep like that, the open areas are usually the 20 yard out. (MSU threw in inaccurate incompletion intended for Kerry Reed on second-and-eight in the third quarter, the drive after Illinois took the 17-10 lead. MSU punted two plays later).
Illinois began the game with two-deep man/under. And that opened up TJ Williams on the crossing routes, and also opened the door for the one long Drew Stanton scramble.
But Illinois adjusted and got out of that and mainly went with two deep and zone across the board.
Different passing routes are open against different coverages. Illinois took away the deep ball.
The last time MSU threw deep. Probably the third play of the second half against Illinois, off a sprint out, deep for Jerramy Scott. He wasn't open. Stanton threw it away.
Prior to that the last one was a deep pass for Reed on the first play of the second half against Notre Dame, before the rain came. It went incomplete.
MSU went three-and-out after the first-down deep incompletions in both situations.
And some basketball:
Posted on The Final Fourum by CorneliusSpartan:
"The Charlotte Observer reported yesterday that, 'in a fair world, Alan Anderson is the starting shooting guard-he earned the spot last season. He's skilled and versatile."
To which I responded:
I was surprised when Anderson went undrafted. I figured that the scouts must have been correct, that there really were 60 players better than him in that draft.
I never believed that. Scouts are stupid people too, sometimes.
And in another post, I responded:
I would like to see Anderson become a star in Charlotte for two reasons:
1. Because he's a good guy and I wish him the best.
2. He's playing in the state of North Carolina, and at some point I'd like for the fans and media down there to realize that MSU was playing without its team MVP that night in the 2005 Final Four.
No one, especially not Fudge Packer, mentioned that as being a factor at all. He played 19 scoreless minutes on a torn up knee.
MSU led at halftime basically without him.
Give MSU a healthy Anderson and that game goes down to the wire.
Give MSU a healthy Anderson and take away UNC's team MVP, (Sean May), and MSU wins.
BALDWIN TESTY AND CONFIDENT
(Sept. 26) - Dave Baldwin was firm and intense tonight after practice. It's clear that he likes the team quite a bit, and it was also clear that he didn't want to spend time discussing the ND game. After tough losses in the past, he has been real patient and informative about all decisions and execution.
This time, he didn't want to get into it. He said as much at the outset. But then was repeatedly asked questions about the ND game, and he had to get more and more firm.
It was interesting. But the bottom line is that he is exuding a lot of confidence right now and I get the idea he can't wait for the next game. If the players feel the same, I think we might see a real sharp performance on Saturday.
I opened the questions with Baldwin, and pointed out that the first down play gained seven, and then the second down play it looked like if there had been an option pitch he would have walked for a first down. Would that have been enough to run out the clock, or would they have needed another first down?
(For me, I was trying to find a favorable way to get into discussion on the decision making at the end of the ND game. Anyone who has come to this board in the last two days knows that I have opined that MSU and Baldwin were right to stick on the ground for five of the six play calls on those two drives deep in their own territory. So I don't think I was being out of character by opening the questioning by kind of dwelling on the positive but leaving the door open for Baldwin to talk about lack of execution.
(But on this day, in order to defend his decisions, Baldwin probably would have had to criticize player execution. And Baldwin didn't want to have to do that. So he told the media several times to direct all blame at him and he could deal with it, but he wasn't going to offer quotes on the specifics.
(It was really an interesting interview. We'll have more on it later in the week).
Here was Baldwin's opening comment after my question about whether the option should have led to an easy first down if there had been a pitch:
Baldwin: "I think we learned we are a good football team and I'm damn proud of the way we competed. We didn't win. I'm not here to second guess anything about this should have been done, or we should have executed that. The blame goes on me. That's the last statement about it. We're going to go on to Illinois. Point the finger at me. We didn't get it done and it's over. And that's it. And that's enough said about that. And we have Illinois now."
That's as tough as I've ever seen him. He's a real laid back guy, a no-socks-in-the-summer, open-minded, Crosby, Stills & Nash type of California thinker. But he had some Woody Hayes in him tonight, and that's not bad.
Bottom line: It was clear that he likes the team and he's looking forward to competing in the Big Ten.
There is some fire in that building right now. No one has wilted, in case you were wondering. The opposite is probably true.
Obviously, MSU wilted in the final minutes of the ND game. Not only in terms of execution, but just in terms of collisions and staying physical.
I think there is some regret. But by now, guys can't wait for their next opportunity.
As Jack Nowlin reported on The Underground Bunker message board, Pete Clifford (knee) returned to practice on Tuesday. Also, they say Kenny Shane (wrenched back) could return this week.
Kyle Cook did not practice on Tuesday.
At The Underground Bunker, a poster named "Cedar Village Idiot" asked: "What was Cook's injury?"
Cook kind of knocked himself out while trying to deliver a cut block for a boot-legging Stanton on that pass play in the rain intended for Kellen Freeman-Davis.
They gave Cook an extra day away from head-knocking after getting his eggs scrambled. (He returned and finished the game despite cob webs).
I'm glad Cook is okay, and now that he is okay, it's almost humurous to go back and watch that play. When the training staff went out to attend to Cook, he was just waking up. And he woke up swinging! He was looking to choke somebody out.
Again, now that he's okay, we can kind of smile about it.
By the way, John L. Smith was wide-eyed in looking out at Cook during the injury. JLS was clearly emotional. He was worried about the injury, worried about Cook and obviously worried about what an injury to Cook would do to the team.
If you didn't already know how valuable Cook is to the team, you could see it in JLS's eyes during that moment.
CONFLICTED ON COACHING
(Sept. 24) - People, I understand a lot of your criticism of the coaching staff. Even John L. Smith conceded after Michigan State's loss to Notre Dame that a few of the coaching calls weren't good ones.
But man, it's hard to watch that first quarter again and not give a huge nod to offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin and defensive coordinator Chris Smeland. I've been honest and fair with my criticism of MSU defense over the last couple of years, with more pointed, specific citations of breakdowns and leaks than anyone.
But some of the things they did in the first quarter were really good, from getting physical play up front from OG, Ryan, Kershaw, and both LBs in stopping the I-formation two-back running attack with only six in the box, to changing up their CB coverages. MSU changed pictures for Quinn in the first quarter, showing a cushion and then closing it up before the snap, sometimes into zone. This was a new look from MSU, in terms of how frequently they did it early on.
Greg Cooper did a real good job playing the run from a short flat zone, and also on another down playing the TE on a short out. MSU simply tackled better than ND in the first quarter. Also, Josh Thornhill was well-coached on finding the TE on a short third down pass over the middle (something ND loves to do as a chain-mover, as we outlined in Spartan Plus).
MSU blitzed twice in the first quarter, netting a pair of incompletions. And then a zone pressure resulted in a Clifton Ryan sack.
MSU showed a lot of different looks in that first quarter and shut down a prolific offense. Yes, Brady Quinn heated up later, and MSU seemed to play on three-wheeled roller skates in the fourth quarter, partly because the offense put them in bad spot. But from last Tuesday through Friday, and through the first 15 minutes, preparation, game planning and execution when the lights went on were outstanding. Part of that is coaching, whether you want to admit it or not.
How is it that everyone praised Georgia Tech's coaches for the job they did against Notre Dame while losing only 14-10? MSU coaches don't deserve praise for this game, but some antivenom is appropriate.
We will all question the consecutive wholesale blitzes that opened the door to a quick strike, turning a 16-point lead into a 10-point lead with eight minutes to go, and pumping life into the Irish. JLS said they were going to gamble and that was certainly a gamble. I guess MSU liked its chances of trying to force an incompletion on fourth-and-five. If the Spartans had forced an incompletion there, with 8 minutes to go, that probably would have been the ball game. So MSU went for it, and left no safety net in the back, and got burned. I guess I can see the logic, going for the KO right there. But most coordinators around the country would have traded real estate for another two or three minutes there, even if it meant giving up the 7-yard slant, tackling, and resetting the chains and keeping the clock ticking.
I'm really conflicted on the overall grading here, because the defensive plan and teaching and scheming were excellent at the beginning. 17-0 was no fluke.
And it should have been 21-0 if not more.
Baldwin was perfect in the first quarter. Absolutely perfect.
MSU had the ball five times. Scored three times. On the FG drive, Kerry Reed dropped a pass in the end zone and Terry Love had a pass (maybe thrown too hard by Drew Stanton) zip through his hands. But the play calls and manipulation of ND's two-deep man-under coverage were perfect. It should have been 21-0 at least.
MSU's lead never got bigger than 17. Would it have made a psychological difference if Reed had caught that TD and MSU had gone up 21-0? It's more than a four-point difference, leading 21-0 as opposed to 17-0, in my opinion, in terms of the psychology that kicks in when down three TDs.
As for MSU's only punt drive in the first quarter, Kellen Freeman-Davis dropped a pass on a wonderfully-designed counter boot to the short side. That was the first time I had ever seen MSU run that particular play that way. KFD dropped it on first down. He would have gained at least 10.
And then on third-and-11, Reed was open on a crossing route into the seam. He dropped it. It should have been a gain of 22 and a first down.
Again, as Baldwin likes to say, the defense didn't stop MSU. MSU stopped itself.
I'm sure Baldwin would like to have some of those play calls back in the second half.
But before throwing him under the bus and bringing back the Perles offense, just for fairness sake, you have to score MSU with 10-8 round over ND's genius Charlie Weis in the art of play scripting and defensive schemes in the first quarter.
The 17-0 lead was largely coaching, people. And it could have/should have been 21-0 or 24-0 or more.
Yes, MSU made some questionable decisions late in the game. And I do question MSU's ability to make good decisions at winning time, finishing games. This has become a sour trend. These are no longer isolated incidents.
But a poorly-coached game is one in which you lose 48-14, like the second game in year four of the Saban administration. That was so bad that Saban fired defensive coordinator Chris Cosh the next day.
That's bad coaching.
This one? I hate to use the phrase "just good enough to lose," but that's what it's been at MSU a little too often. Can it change? Yes, I think it can. But so much of Saturday's game seemed to be mental in the fourth quarter. One team urgently trying to make plays to win, expecting to win and one team kind of scared that another loss was coming.
I hate to continually draw comparisons between JLS's fourth year and Saban's fourth year, but it really is apples to apples. Saban had to deal with some scholarship reductions, but there isn't much difference in the scholarship level in '98 compared to now.
I wonder if more people gave Saban the benefit of the doubt back then because they merely enjoyed watching MSU throw on first down once in a while, and use the shot gun once in a while - after the 12 years of close-to-the-vest offense from Perles.
Also, Saban was so grumpy that people assumed he knew what he was doing. JLS is a slap-happy cowboy. I get a kick out of him as a person, but I wonder if that demeanor loses some cred with the armchair gallery.
Saban went to bowls his first three years. That's a plus. But he avoided playing the two best teams in the Big Ten in '95 and '95 (Ohio State and champ Northwestern during the Barnett era).
Hey, Saban is/was a great coach. We all know that. But he didn't go to a bowl game in year four; meanwhile, everyone is demanding that JLS win at least eight games this year. I think that's still possible.
As for Saban, after a couple of those onside kick losses in '98, I remember doing local radio at the time and fielding calls from a growing number of people around town that were losing faith in him. He took some nasty calls on his radio show, and I think that was a factor 12 months later when he decided to leave.
But there were more people in the undecided camp back then than there are now.
Overall, the fans are doing a good job for the program. The fans' support and environment that they created on Saturday night paid immediate dividends in the recruiting world, with Milwaukee basketball prospect Korie Lucious committing in the stands to Tom Izzo, and Flint Carman-Ainsworth DT Ryan Wheat raising his hands, imploring the fans to get louder, and New Jersey RB Mason Robinson grading his visit as a perfect 10. And elite basketball recruit Delvon Roe (top five nationally, out of Euclid, Ohio, in the class of '08) feeling much the same way.
The program isn't dead. Lots of people care. Lots of passion. That's not a bad thing at all.
Yes there is pressure on the Michigan State coaching staff. But pressure is a priviledge that comes with the opportunity to coach against Notre Dame on national TV before a frenzied, success-starved, soaking fanbase. It's a tough job, coaching at Michigan State. But the engine is still a big one, if they can ever start hitting on all cylinders.
MENTALITY SEEMS GOOD; ANSWERING UM FANS
(Sept. 11) - I think Michigan State has done some good things this year, through its first two games. I think MSU's players have confidence. But (here's the good thing for MSU fans) I don't think the Spartans are delusional about themselves. I don't think they think they are great, as has been a problem with past MSU teams.
Beating Idaho and EMU shouldn't give them reason to think they are great. But you remember in 2002 after MSU blew out EMU, they thought they were the '70s Steelers.
Interviews don't give us all the answers, but sometimes they give us some insight into the mindsets of the players. Based on interviews following Saturday's game, and during Monday's press conference and after Tuesday's practice, it seems to me that this is a team with a good sense of urgency.
They talk about wanting and needing to get better. I think the captains have had an impact in keeping people grounded and seeking excellence.
I don't think psychology or focus or commitment will be a problem this week in practice or on gameday at Pitt. I think the team is in good shape mentally. They know they need to communicate well on the o-line. They know they have to be physical in the front seven and adhere to assignments in pass defense. If they don't get it done it won't be because they didn't respect the task at hand.
These may sound like minor details for the average football fan. But for Michigan State football fans, if in fact this team is humble and determined, that would be a pleasant change from past Spartan teams.
I received a good email from a Michigan fan named ZT on Tuesday.
He raised some questions about some things that I have written. He pointed out that I called the MSU-EMU game a justified blowout. I took the stance that MSU dominated thoroughly, despite what some might say about the close halftime score.
He compared this to my coverage of the UM-MSU game in 2003. That day, most believed the game was not as close as the final score: UM 27, MSU 20.
My analysis of the game was that it was in fact as close as the score indicated due to MSU's dominance in special teams, an often-overlooked aspect of any game.
"Just to point out how you look at things:
Never mind that State was dominated statistically, outgained 439-290, or
that two (dare I call them fluke?) crazy plays - the Shabaj bomb, and the
long fumble return as M was poised to go up three scores with six minutes
left - made it close."
Then he went on to suggest that I watch games with green-colored glasses and so forth.
Actually, I'm not sure what my prescription is. My wife is an optometrist. I let her handle that stuff.
But I do think I am even and fair when reviewing tape and trying to find things beneath the surface that have an impact on deciding games. Usually, I spend most of my time trying to figure out what the hell went wrong for MSU. That's kind of my reason for being on Earth, I've come to realize.
So I answered ZT's email and tried to defend how I could call MSU-EMU a justified blowout yet claim that the UM-MSU game of '03 was as close as the score indicated:
First of all, in 2003, UM outgained MSU by 150 in net offensive yards.
MSU outgained EMU by 314 this year, in net offensive yards.
Big difference there, my friend.
Also, MSU was not dominated statistically in the 2003 game if you include return yardage.
Special teams and turnovers are part of the game, and they were a big part of MSU's success in 2003 as a whole. That's why they must be included in the equation. Some people call them hidden yards. I consider them actual yards. They aren't hidden at all. And that was the basis of my analysis back in 2003.
Consider MSU's edges in returns yards:
Interception and fumble return yards: 84-yard edge for MSU.
Punt yards average: 40-yard edge over 5 punts for each team. (MSU averaged 42 yards per punt compared to 34 for UM).
Punt return edge: Each team punted five times, MSU had a 35-yard edge in return yards
MSU had a 49-yard edge in kickoff returns: (MSU averaged 28.8 on kickoff returns. MSU had one more kickoff return than UM, so subtract an average return of 28.8 from MSU's total edge from the game and the result is 49 yards.)
I must admit that I would need to go back and see how each return finished in relation to the 20-yard line; that is the true measure of kick return success rather than raw yardage. So this 49-yard edge for MSU could be flawed, although a 28.8 average compared to a 16-yard average from UM suggests quite a difference in effectiveness in favor of MSU on this day.
Overall, UM moved the ball 150 yards farther than MSU on net offensive plays.
But MSU moved the ball 208 yards farther than UM in punt return, interception return, fumble return, punt exchange differential and kickoff return differential.
You might not want to acknowledge those numbers as being meaningful, but I'm sure your coaching staff does.
UM was sloppy with the ball on the fumble return, sloppy in pass defense on Shabaj's TD, and not good in kickoff coverage, didn't punt well and didn't cover punts well. In a game in which both teams scored in the 20s, these were big, big factors. Those stats should not be overlooked as meaningless, but instead should be seen as reasons why the game was close on the scoreboard.
Yes, MSU had two errors in pass defense against EMU. That's a big deal if both teams score in the 20s, as was the case in 2003. Not such a big deal when one team scores 52.
UM enjoyed a huge edge over MSU in first downs in '03. But MSU was unable to get first downs on the 1-play Shabaj TD drive, and the fumble return drive. Also MSU had a shorter field most of the day, which limits first downs.
UM was much better than MSU on third-down conversion percentage and that was the difference in the game. It was a close game that UM deserved to win. The better team won, no question about it.
But it deserved to be a close game.
In 2003, UM and MSU each averaged 5.1 yards per offensive play. And this doesn't take into account turnovers and special teams.
Factor in the turnovers and special teams edges, and the Wolverines NEEDED to be dominant on third down order to win. And they got it done.
In the EMU-MSU game, MSU averaged 7.6 yards per play, compared to 4.6 for EMU.
In closing, the UM-MSU game was close and the MSU-EMU game was not.
There are reasons, and they can be found in the numbers if you care to look at all of them.
Thank you for allowing me to refresh my memory on this.
Have a great day. You're a good fan.
(Sept. 1) - Checking the message board "mailbag," I answered a post last night on The Underground Bunker pertaining to preseason football camp:
"spartanmatt" asked "Were KFD and Holmes the missing link last year when the MSU offense stalled?"
Yeah, I think a good blocking TE or two could have turned the nation's No. 5 offense into No. 1, and turned the Big Ten's No. 3 rushing offense into No. 2.
So MSU's offense stalled a little bit in two of their 12 games. A better blocking TE and maybe MSU could have gone 12 for 12 like Texas and USC.
But your point is a good one. MSU had trouble in the red zone. A great running game (rather than just a good one) always helps in the red zone.
And your other point is also a good one: throwing to the TE could really give this offense some more bite. When KFD made that great TD catch while being knocked out in the ND game, I thought it was ON for him. He's open.
All indications are that KFD has improved his blocking, and is ready to be a horse after the catch. We'll see. He definitely has the goods, just needs the ball. Of course there is just one ball so it is going to be hard to get it to any one guy more than two or three or four times a game. Lots of talent on offense, and KFD should give defenses another horse to worry about.
Actually, I think KFD is a big-play TE. I don't think many defenses are going to skew their defenses to make the TE a major, major point of emphasis. They'll be worried about the wide outs, or maybe Ringer. And KFD has a chance to really get loose a time or two, very soon.
I don't think TE was the missing link last year. I think the kicker, plain and simple, had a big domino effect on things.
But you're right, TE blocking was not as good as it was in '04 with Randall, one of the more underrated players around here in a long time.
DOT COMP: Don't forget about Nick Smith
(AUG. 15) - Checking the message board "mailbag," I answered a post last night on The Underground Bunker pertaining to preseason football camp:
"spartanmatt" asked "Where does (junior defensive end) Nick Smith fit in this year?
Great question. He is not one to forget about.
As you know, Nick Smith has to stay healthy first and foremost. He missed spring practice again in 2006 with an injury (after missing it in 2005).
He played a very little bit in the fall of 2004 as a true freshman. Then he played a very little bit last fall.
Once upon a time, John L. Smith was tabbing Smith as being a blossoming pass rush threat, and the type of DE he loved having in the program. Then came the injuries, after Coach Smith kind of admitted that maybe they blew a year of Nick's eligibility by having him play as a true frosh.
Anyway, Nick Smith still has talent.
Right now, he is taking some of the reps, but he isn't yet full go.
SPARTAN Magazine's Jack Nowlin did some interviews on this subject after practice on Friday, and briefed me on the subject a little bit.
We can report that Nick is coming back slowly but steadily and taking some reps. They expect him to be back up near full-go health at some point in preseason camp.
Look for more specifics from Nowlin in the near future.
Smith is definitely one to watch. And there's a lot of motivation for him to get it in gear because decent guys are stepping up and moving past him in the depth chart. We all know that Justin Kershaw is the first string stud DE. Well, Jonal Saint-Dic can play rush end or stud end. If rush end gets crowded with Brandon Long, Ervin Baldwin and Reggie Graham all coming along with nice potential, it will make sense for Saint-Dic to move to stud. He can play stud. He did it in the spring.
So Nick Smith, as talented as he is, is in danger of falling to third string or lower.
Michigan State is starting to accumulate a nice assortment of bodies on the defensive line, and will benefit from the type of competition it creates on the practice field.
(JULY 27) - Checking the message board "mailbag," I answered a couple of posts last night on The Final Fourum pertaining to basketball recruiting:
"So I drank a few too many beers last night..... And started watching Spartan highlights until like 4 am. One thing that I noticed when watching some basketball clips, just wondering if anyone in the know would agree...?
"Andre Hutson = Delvon Roe.
"I've seen a couple brief clips of Roe in action and their games look similar."
Quick background: Delvon Roe is a Plan A recruiting target for Michigan State. He will be a junior at Euclid (Ohio) St. Edward's in the Cleveland area this fall.
I think Coach T.I. sees the same thing.
In addition to be an athletic lefty, there is one little thing that Roe does that Hutson did. Hutson was GREAT at anticipating a change of possession from defense to offense and beating his guy with his first two steps down court. Eighty feet later, Hutson was often open for a lay-up or three per game. And if he didn't get the lay-up, he was at least gassing the guy trying to guard him, or getting in position for early-offense rebounding.
Roe was GREAT at this at the NIKE Camp. They don't keep stats at the NIKE Camp, but he had to have been close to the very top in points per game and FG pct, partly because he would get two or three leakout buckets every game. And he wasn't cherry picking, he was just hustling.
In watching Roe get points in this fashion game after game, it told me a few things about him:
As for the Hutson comparison that you made:
I think Roe is a little more athletic, and has more face-up skill, especially off the dribble.
I think Hutson's frame as a teen-ager was a little more conducive to adding mass.
Both are/were wonderful kids.
By the way, Hutson had designs on being a small forward in college. Roe said at the NIKE Camp that he considers himself a three or a four, he has no preference about being a three like most kids do at that height.
But bottom line, I agree with your point. I'm not sure Roe equals Hutson, as you posted. But they are similar in some unique ways.
Actually, there are parts of Roe's game that remind me of four or five players.
At first, Roe reminded me of Glen Worley on his best day, but then it didn't take long for Roe to eclipse Worley in just about every area, and I had to start thinking of better players for comparisons. A young Robert Horry comes to mind a little bit too.
Basically, he is terrific. This is a huge recruiting battle between Michigan State and Michigan, with Ohio State apparently in there a little bit too, with North Carolina trying to knock on the door.
Also last night, msuspartan777 posted:
"(Durrell) Summers sounds like a bigger Torbert from what I've read Haven't seen him though - thoughts?"
Summers (an MSU commitment who will be a 6-5 senior for Redford Covenant Christian this fall and winter) is more graceful, leaner, taller.
Torbert more powerful as a teen.
Summers covers more ground with his first step and is quicker with it. That's a major, major difference.
KT had a real nice shooting stroke as a sophomore and junior, but it went away from him as he developed some bad habits (might have gotten carried away with showing off the hops and somehow started shooting on the way down. He got it corrected in time to lead the Big Ten in 3-point percentage as a junior in 2004). Amid the bad habits in high school, the ankle injury messed him up for about 30 months. Some wonder if he may have received some some bad medical attention while in high school. MSU had to re-break the bone early in his sophomore year to restart the rehabilitation process, and begin helping Torbert regain some of that jumping ability that made him a summer circuit legend in 1999 and 2000.
I think Summers is more motivated to work on weaknesses.
Summers has a good outside shot, but sometimes you don't see it because if there is daylight to the rim, he's taking it. His HS coach, Durand Shepherd, is a big believer in the drive, getting fouled, going to the line, rather than leavings Ws and Ls up to fickle 3-point percentages.
I like Shepherd's philosophy a lot, especially when it comes to helping high school players develop a complete game.
Summers loved to shoot the three as a youngster, as KT did. But Summers has incorporated more dribble drive into his arsenal. KT never seemed to have that Eric Snow type of obsession with improving his ball handling. Summers seems very interested in improving that end of his game.
Overall, both KT and Summers are/were terrific, humble, giving people.
YES, IZZO ENJOYED STEPHEN A.'S WORDS
(JULY 1) - Michigan State did not achieve most of what it set out to do on the basketball court during the regular season in 2005-2006. Seeing two Spartans taken in the first round of Wednesday's NBA Draft, and three players taken in the top 34, might not have eased the pain of the season as a whole for Michigan State fans. But the positives from the NBA Draft will be far reaching in the court of public opinion for the Spartans. And that means added power on the recruiting trail.
I don't have any data to back this up, but I suspect that sending two more players into the NBA as first-round draft picks will do more for Tom Izzo with his recruiting pitches than a Big Ten title would have. And Michigan State's success on draft night will carry more weight in recruiting living rooms than a victory or two in the NCAA Tournament could have done.
Another Big Ten championship banner would have looked good in the rafters. But in terms of having an impact on the future, the stuff that went down on Wednesday night was more important.
I suspect that the important thing is to get a great mix of success in each area. Get to the Final Four often enough for people from coast to coast to view your program as a power. And then punctuate that success by producing first-round draft picks.
Right now, I'm not sure any program does those two things better than Michigan State.
And when you factor in graduation rates, Izzo's Spartans stand alone.
His senior draft choices: Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Andre Hutson, Paul Davis, Maurice Ager. Add free-agent hook-up Alan Anderson. When they have stayed four years, they have graduated.
Shannon Brown was on pace to graduate, if he had stayed.
Mateen Cleaves was close. And he expects to finish some day soon, perhaps to pursue a coaching career.
Sure, Michigan State's loss to George Mason in March stung Michigan State's claim for elitism. But 31 other Division I power programs lost that day and the day before, too.
And 200 others were on the sidelines wishing they could have been in The Big Dance.
While Michigan State's loss to George Mason continued to hurt Spartan fans for days after the defeat, many of the recruits and national pundits forgot about it while watching Tennessee, Ohio State and Kansas fail to make it out of the first weekend as well.
I mean, how far did North Carolina and Arizona go in the tournament?
Not very far.
But does that change your opinion of those programs as national powers? Of course not.
And Michigan State has earned the same kind of clout.
Fast forward to June, and the Spartans stood pretty high on draft night. Only UConn stood higher.
Those who think locally have wondered how an MSU team with two first-round draft picks could have lost to George Mason.
Well, UConn and its four first-round picks lost to George Mason too.
That doesn't excuse Michigan State. But it does serve as a reminder that any run in the NCAA Tournament is a major thing. And Michigan State has had five major runs since 1999.
SELECTIVE MEMORY, A GOOD THING
The average college basketball fan and the better-than-average college basketball recruit doesn't remember today that the Spartans were 8-8 in conference play, and didn't make it past the first game of the NCAA Tournament.
That stuff gets lost in the cluttered swamp of short term memory.
Meanwhile those same people who watched Wednesday's NBA Draft telecast - and that includes thousands of impressionable recuits - could come away with no other conclusion than this: Michigan State basketball is big-time.
And, for a change, people like Izzo didn't have to be the ones atop the soap box pointing out Michigan State's success. Out of nowhere, ESPN analyst and Philadelphia Inquirer writer Stephen A. Smith sounded off loudly and often about Izzo.
Smith might annoy a lot of people with his strong, crass delivery. And for that reason, like him or not, a lot of people stop and listen to what he says. His critics might not be comfortable with his delivery. And they are probably further bothered by the fact that his opinions are almost always laced with intelligence.
Meanwhile, he is becoming an increasingly key opinion leader in the world of basketball.
And on a national stage, Wednesday night, Smith's praise for Izzo and his teaching style easily outweighed any sugar Dick Vitale could serve up for Duke.
And all of it comes just one week before the July 5 tip-off of the major shoe camps, which signal the beginning of the crucial July evaluation period. When Izzo enters the gyms at the NIKE All-America Camp and the adidas camp, recruits won't see him as one of the guys who got ousted by George Mason. They'll see him as the guy the controversial Stephen A. Smith was crowing about a few days earlier.
PERCEPTION NOW AN ALLY
Izzo has often complained that perception becomes reality on the recruiting trail. His team can lead the Big Ten in scoring. But if an AAU coach somewhere is telling recruits that Michigan State slows the pace too much and doesn't let its players shoot enough, Izzo can point to the stat sheet all he wants, but the negative perception becomes reality in the mind of impressionable recruits.
Anti-MSU factions have had less and less ammunition against Michigan State in the last two years when it comes to swaying recruits against MSU. Although the Spartans had a mediocre record last year, Izzo can at least point to the fact that Ager, Brown and Davis each approached 20 points per game. They got their shots. They scored their points. They got drafted.
And that's important when trying to attract the next batch.
Now, perception is becoming reality in a positive sense.
For a change.
And Izzo couldn't help but smile on Wednesday night when hearing Smith praise MSU's developmental prowess.
When Brown was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, ESPN's Jay Bilas, who has been as complimentary of Michigan State as any national figure over the past five years, had this to say about Brown:
"NFL body. Athletic, strong, he's got huge hands and he is a really capable defender. He had 50 steals last year, and on the Big Ten All-Defensive team. And he can make shots. He can shoot it from the perimeter. He can put it on the floor and hit mid-range jump shots and he really gets out on the break and he can finish at the rim and dunk on your head. He's a really good player."
Then ESPN NBA analyst Greg Anthony chimed in with:
"The bottom line is this: You are picking this late in the first round, you are a definite playoff team and you have an opportunity to get a starter (like Brown)? That's a tremendous asset, I think, if you're the Cleveland Cavaliers. This could end up being really a steal of the draft if this guy ends up starting for them this year?"
Then Stephen A. Smith, batting last, and talking the loudest, shot out the words that will resonate in the subconscious of Joe Fan and Joe Recruit.
Smith said: "And let's not forget exceptionally well-coached, from one of my favorite coaches in college basketball, and that's Tom Izzo. You know playing for Tom Izzo you are going to be tough-minded, if nothing else you are going to play defense. The fact that this guy can shoot just adds to everything else."
Usually, it's Vitale delivering that kind of praise for Mike Krzyzewski. People have gotten sick of that rap. But it still boosts Coach K's legend.
On this night, however, Vitale was reduced to limited air time while serving as an out-of-studio talking head via satellite. On this night, it was Smith who dominated the stage-side set in New York. And Michigan State, even more so than Connecticut, stood out as Smith's personal favorite.
When Ager was selected, Vitale returned to the telecast after a 15-minute absence and went first with his analysis of the Detroiter:
"With their (Dallas's) style of play, uptempo and run the court, he is a good transition player, very athletic, could be explosive in transition. Hey, this could be the coming of another Michael Finey - 6-5, really a good wing player. I think they made themselves a solid choice this late."
"He (Ager) is a really good scorer. He can run the floor. He gets up and down the floor and attacks the rim in transition. He is a good shooter when he gets his feet set.
"You've got to make him put it on the floor and I think that's one area where he could improve, and that's putting it on the floor and attacking off the dribble. His pull-up jump shot could improve.
"He's got to work on his understanding of the game, a little bit. I think it's a good pick. He doesn't pick up concepts particularly well, but I think that's something he can work on and become a better player in that regard.
"He's a great kid. He is really going to work for you. He is really going to defend. And as is the case with Shannon Brown, he is a guy that has been very well-coached."
"When you get away from Connecticut as being the most talented team in college basketball, you can make an argument that Michigan State was the second most talented. So to get a guy this late in the first round for Dallas it makes me think back to Josh Howard. Not quite as polished as Josh Howard, but a similar guy in terms of I think he is going to have an ability to impact their roster. And remember that he also defends it pretty well. If you play for Tom Izzo, you are going to get after it on the defensive side."
And then Smith economized his words, after hearing Bilas and Anthony pick up on his Izzo love-fest.
Smith on Ager:
"Can shoot, can defend and he played for Tom Izzo. What's there to think about?"
And with that, in an unexpected yet not-so-subtle way, the growth of Izzo's program had added another layer, thanks to Smith's endorsement.
IZZO DUG IT
Izzo acknowledged that Smith's words were big for Spartan basketball.
"I think it was a huge night for the program," Izzo said. "I thought Stephen A. Smith did us a lot of favors. And I think that is respect for the program and the guys that have played here.
"The way they talked about our program, I think there were nothing but positives for Michigan State. And that's not just our basketball program but our entire university."
After the draft, Izzo spoke with media as part of a teleconference call. In Lansing for most of the week, media and fans recounted the shortcomings of the season as an ironic backdrop to what figured to be a great draft for Michigan State.
Izzo was asked if he will be haunted by the fact that Michigan State fell short of its goals yet had the first three Big Ten players drafted:
"I really don't feel that way," Izzo said. "Would I have liked to have won more? There are so many fragile things. If we go by that, then UConn should have won the NBA Championship, not the collegiate one.
"I think I tried my best during the year to explain that I didn't think we had as good of depth. I think with Mo and Shannon, they seemed to start out really well and had a little lull in the middle and then for the most part came on at the end some. And I think they did wear down some.
"And then like I said, those injuries at the end hurt, and the schedule hurt. There were all these reasons, and if we would have won two or three more games at the end and been a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, I think everybody would have looked at it differently.
"But I don't look at that at all because I didn't hear anybody talking about it when we had no draft picks and we went to a Final Four last year. I don't think anybody looked at it the other way.
"I just looked at it as: Hey, if everybody could go through their careers like Paul and Mo did where they went to an Elite Eight and they went to a Final Four and they went to four NCAA Tournaments and things like that there have been a lot of great teams and great players here and a lot of other places that never got to achieve that. So I really believe there were a lot more plusses than minuses for them."
That might not be the last time Izzo will have to answer that question. But the good news for the Spartan recruiting machine is that the question is relegated to local thinkers.
The rest of the nation, including in-state and out-of-state recruits, has moved on. And ESPN's Smith helped fuel the process.
My take on last season and the closure of the draft? I spent 5,000 words examining what went wrong in one of our March issues of SPARTAN Magazine.
To summarize: Michigan State needed more out of Drew Naymick, Marquise Gray and Maurice Joseph.
Izzo said it was a requirement that his freshman back-up wings be productive. One of them, Travis Walton, came through.
Nothing against Joseph. At the same stage as a true freshman, Morris Peterson probably would not have been able to deliver much, either. But Peterson redshirted. Izzo didn't have the luxury of doing the same with Joseph.
By the end of February, for various reasons, those three guys were giving Michigan State zero minutes per game.
This forced Matt Trannon to play inside, rather than providing minutes on the perimeter. And this was before Trannon got hurt.
The bottom line is that Ager and Brown and Drew Neitzel had to play too many minutes - which was my major concern for this team way back in October.
Despite the depth problems, Izzo forged ahead with the sprinting, breakneck pace. That's his style. It's a proven, winning style. And, yes, recruits dig it.
Izzo had never coached a team like this. It was thin, yet there was huge talent at the top with Ager, Brown and Davis. It was a different mixture. It didn't quite fit the Izzo blueprint.
Izzo rolled the dice, like Hearns did against Hagler. He kept a foot on the gas pedal and figured (hoped) that the mature bodies of Davis, Ager and Brown could play hard and fast for 30-plus games. And keep jetting through the NCAA Tournament.
Izzo concedes now that his guys wore down. He knew it in March, too, but figured that the natural rush of the NCAA Tournament could provide enough boost to carry his talented team. But the afterburner never kicked in.
As a result of those guys playing too many minutes, things like defense and rebounding and even shooting accuracy began to lose the usual Izzo sharpness. The effectiveness and efficiency of the big three began to suffer.
When Gray, Naymick and Joseph petered out, Izzo said time after time that his best players needed to play their best in order for the team to succeed. Never before has an Izzo team had to rely so much on so few players.
At times, Davis was very good. At times, Ager and Brown were very good. But they were rarely very good simultaneously. In fact, I'm not sure there was one game all season when all three were on at the same time.
The fact that Ager and Brown had to play too many minutes probably hurt their ability to sharpen their games in time for a March run. And Davis never had the type of tag-team partner who could relieve him of double-teams, as Alan Anderson did in 2005 with his ability to spread the floor as a driving, shooting power forward.
Ager, Brown and Davis are very good. NBA good. But even very good players need a quality supporting cast. As hard as Neitzel and Walton tried to offer help, Michigan State's supporting cast just wasn't good enough.
Izzo has had two kinds of teams since 1999. He has had deep teams. And he has had thin teams.
The deep teams have gone to the Elite Eight or farther: ('99, '00, '01, '03, '05).
The thin teams have been one and done: ('02, '04, '06).
It's not a coincidence that the deep teams provide Izzo with the luxury of yanking people off the court when they aren't defending, rebounding, screening and providing the winning details he demands. The details Stephen A. Smith applauded on Wednesday night.
Izzo didn't have that luxury last season, despite the fact that he had three NBA draft picks on the roster.
The trick is to accumulate that kind of NBA talent again, and surround it with depth and competition for playing time. It's a hard trick to pull off. But Izzo has done it before and he is in the process of doing it again.
NFL DRAFT SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT MSU OFFENSE
(APRIL 30) - A SpartanMag.com member named "Spartlanta" posted the following on The Underground Bunker, Saturday:
"Is it telling that MSU's offense rolled up 340 passing yards and 100+ rushing yards against a defense that just put 5 players in the NFL on the first day of the draft (three #1's!)?
"That same offense returns every single skilled position player save one (Kyle Brown) and two and a half starting offensive linemen (gotta include Roland Martin).
"Put together a decent defense this year and there's absolutely no reason this team can't play in Pasadena. No reason at all."
Yeah, MSU played better on offense against OSU and ND than Texas and USC did against the Bucks and Irish.
The transitive property works in geometry, but not in sports.
Still, MSU's A-game is a high-, high-ceiling A-game.
MSU had 457 yards against a great Ohio State defense, that's a point I made on Rivals Radio earlier this week, and that's a point you are making today. And I agree.
Hey, MSU was inside the 20-yard line with 7 minutes to go against OSU, with a chance to put the Buckeyes down by two scores. In Columbus.
Sure, MSU blew a block on third down, missed a field goal, screwed up, got beat. And Billy Conn was ahead of Joe Louis going into the late rounds.
But you can't get that far without some horsepower. And you can't get 457 yards against OSU without some dynamite scheming and play-making.
Billy Conn got a TON of credit for what he did against Louis. It made his career.
What MSU did against OSU should raise more eyebrows than it has.
Everyone talks about the blocked field goal against OSU. But I think that play was the most overrated play in the history of MSU football.
It was a brain cramp, an accident, John L. Smith blew a gasket, and it cost them 7 points (not 10. Does anyone think they actually would have made that field goal?).
MSU's error on that play has as much to do with "bad coaching" as did the two botched on-side kicks in 1998 which blew victories and caused everyone to conclude that Nick Saban couldn't coach.
They were special teams mishaps. Special teams play is about 50 percent grab-ass chaos anyway.
Everyone can see when a breakdown takes place and someone blocks a field goal. But I spent more time that week wondering how a two-receiver route against a 7-man coverage resulted in a wide open OSU WR. It's way more important to correct that type of thing.
That field goal error? That thing was corrected in 90 seconds at halftime, I promise you. The play I'm talking about, the TD pass, is the type of thing that needs to get corrected in order to turn a 5-7 team into an 8-4 (or better) team. But everyone will talk, and talk about that blocked field goal.
People say it was the turning point in the season. I don't even think it was the turning point in the game.
OSU took the lead in the third quarter, but MSU came back strong, controlled the middle portion of the second half, and regained the lead.
All that the blocked FG did was let Jim Tressel stay conservative longer.
If MSU had missed that field goal at the end of the half and gone in up by 10, Tressel would have come out more aggressive in the third quarter and taken the lead before the start of the fourth quarter anyway.
I think the score would have been just about the same heading into the fourth quarter with or without the blocked field goal.
Most overrated play in MSU football history.
But it's an easy play for media to underscore as THE telling play of the season, due to the drama, and due to the fact that it was a naked error, easy for all to see. And it's easy and obvious to write about.
Yeah, it was a Shakespearean moment.
But the other 90 plays had so much more to do with actual football for the long term.
MSU couldn't pass protect against OSU last year after Stefon Wheeler went out and Tom Kaczmarek came in. Can new left tackle Mike Gyetvai get it done at LT this year? I don't see any team having a pass rush in the Big Ten this year like OSU had last year, first of all. And I think Gyetvai will be fine.
The pass protection thing and the pass defense breakdown, those are the things I think about. Not the isolated Chinese fire drill field goal.
I felt the same thing after the onside kick problems in the '98 season.
After the OSU game last year, I came away more impressed with the direction of the program than anything.
But in Spartan Plus, a few days later, I said the Northwestern game was the most important game to date in the JLS era, and if they didn't win then they would be staring down the barrell of a 5-7 season.
I interviewed Drew Stanton earlier this week for the Athlon's Big Ten regional preview, and he said (among other things) that putting big emphasis on those winnable games in the second half of the season is high on the things he wants to get done as a second-year captain.
I think that's a wise way of thinking.
SCRIMMAGE FORMAT BETTER THAN PAST YEARS
(April 13) - Anyone near Spartan Stadium on Saturday for the spring scrimmage will hear someone, somewhere say this:
"Man, this scrimmage sucks. It was so much better when it was Green against the White."
Green against white sucked. Sure, they kept score and played a real game of sorts. But the individual matchups were so much worse and uneventful, giving us less insight into position development.
I think it was 1998 when I was really interested to see how good Tupe Peko was going to be. He was a juco LT transferring in a few months after Dave Sucura struggled mightily while being forced to play out of position in 1998.
MSU wasn't going to get it done in 1999 with Sucura at left tackle. So much depended on whether Peko could pan out at that position.
Peko was a mid-semester guy. Was he athletic enough to be a LT at this level?
The spring game could possibly begin to offer some answers (we in the media weren't allowed to watch much, if any, 11-on-11 scrimmaging up to that point).
So they had a Green-White Game. I think they held a captains draft that year or something.
Anyway, I was hoping to see Peko against Robaire Smith, who was supposed to be MSU's best pass rusher at the time.
But as it turned out, Peko and Robaire were on the same team. Peko pass blocked against four-year, third-stringer Raheem Miller most of the day, and we learned nothing.
Now that sucked.
Plus, those games were played with a running clock. Fans were lucky to see 50 snaps.
There were other years when the Green-White Game was staged in a best-against-the-rest format.
That sucked too.
Again, you didn't see first-stringers match up against first stringers.
And back in the Perles days, first-string skill players were kept off the field to avoid injury. It was interesting to watch some of the second-stringers, particularly at quarterback, in that format. But there were more scholarship players in those days, so there were naturally a few better matchups.
But overall, there were few tests, and limited insight provided.
No Green-White Game between 1988 and 2002 that I ever saw was as interesting as the ones vs. ones scrimmaging that we've seen in the past three spring games under John L. Smith, and the spring scrimmage we'll see on Saturday.
Remember Smith's first spring scrimmage in 2003? I think they ran a flanker reverse pass.
The three previous head coaches tried to get through the spring game without showing anything on offense.
The current staff treats the spring game not as a promotional exhibition, but as one of 15 important practices. They try to get something done.
With the current format, which is just a scrimmage, moving up and down the field on a four-down basis, you get to see first string against first string, which we NEVER saw in any of the old green-white game formats.
We'll see first-string left tackle Mike Gyetvai against first-string rush end Brandon Long.
We'll see first-string transplant cornerback Greg Cooper try to cover Matt Trannon. We should learn something about Cooper and whether he can offer much-needed help at that position.
We'll see the No. 1 defense try to play pass defense against Drew Stanton and an excellent set of receivers.
In other words, we'll see a true measure. We'll see some good football. Better than it used to be for the spring game.
And then they'll line up and do it again on Friday, April 21.
The yawners can say spring football doesn't mean anything. Me? I always want to see another game, another scrimmage, another down. There are always more questions to be answered, developmental strides to be made. And I know the astute fans feel the same way.
It Takes Time To Grown Your Own D-Line
(March 27) - For this week's issue of SPARTAN Magazine, I'm taking a closer look at Michigan State's incoming defensive end recruits for 2006.
In doing some research for the article, I glanced at Bobby Williams's 2002 recruiting class to get a reminder of what John L. Smith inherited. That's the class that makes up this season's fifth-year seniors.
I had forgotten that Michigan State signed only two players in 2002 who were originally designated as DTs, DEs or LBs.
That's only two signees on the defensive front seven.
And one of them was Steve Kielp.
The other one was Clifton Ryan.
I mean how misguided was that?
Since then, MSU moved fullback David Herron to LB out of raw necessity. He has shocked everyone by turning into a quality LB. He might even become a plus player this fall. The coaches have developed him nicely and continue to push him.
Kielp is long gone. He tried hard, but to put it kindly, he is not a guy Smith's staff would have recruited.
We all know that Ryan has turned out to be a pretty good player. But when we look at how soft MSU was in the defensive front seven last season, we need to remember that Smith's staff inherited a recruiting hole from '02.
Sure, they inherited some pretty good talent in Matthias Askew, Greg Taplin, Mike Labinjo and Cliff Dukes. They were able to rehabilitate the careers of Labinjo and Taplin. Askew was good for one year. So was Dukes, before disappointing in 2004.
After they left, the '02 class (aside from Ryan and the Herron project) provided nothing in the defensive front seven. Then in '03, Smith had only six weeks to put together a recruiting class. The Spartans signed juco defensive end Daryl Melvin and gave him a try, but that didn't work out.
Go back another year to the recruiting class of 2001 and we find that Williams' second-to-last class netted only one contributor for John L. Smith at defensive end - journeyman Michael Bazemore. Bazemore gave an honest effort, and became a starter last year, but certainly wasn't capable of saving any lives.
That left only the class of '04 from which to harvest players to help the pass rush. Last year, MSU used Nick Smith as a second-year DE. And Justin Kershaw was Ryan's back-up as a redshirt freshman. Both were from the class of '04.
MSU probably had to play Nick Smith too early, out of necessity. He's already a junior.
The point is this: MSU had major recruiting holes in '01, '02 and '03. They've tried to fix it with some juco band-aids. But d-line is probably the area that takes the longest to repair.
I wouldn't be surprised if Kershaw and Nick Smith start to come around as quality players this year. Basically, John L. Smith's recruiting at defensive end began with them. How much should we have expected of them last year as 19-year-olds?
It takes a while to grow your own d-line. The Spartans did pretty well on defense with Taplin, Dukes and Askew in '03. When and if they get some good four-year guys of their own, I think there's a good chance Smith's staff will manufacture a quality pass rush like they used to have at Louisville, where they developed NFL pass rushers and routinely ranked among the nation's leaders in sacks. Smith's staff has done it before. And their pressure-based defense can't operate at full-octane without a pass rush. Smith's still filling the tank.
Nick Smith, Kershaw and true sophomore DE Brandon Long need to show progress this spring. Jonal St. Dic retains junior status for 2006 as a junior college transfer from '05. He is slippery and hard to block at times, but he needs to work harder. He's been known to short-leg some drills.
In the fall, juco transfer Ervin Baldwin will arrive as the latest band-aid defensive end, and he looks like he might be the most talented so far.
Redshirt freshman Reggie Graham will be interesting to chart between now and 2009. He was a string bean of an athlete last year. He has added weight but is still slim.
Pass rushers are often late bloomers (think Julian Peterson and any number of early-round NFL draft picks from Small Southern College U.) I'm not saying Graham will be good this year. But some of the building process on the d-line has less to do with today and more to do with tomorrow. Of course MSU needs some good todays in 2006 in order to feel good about tomorrow.
MSU tried some quick-fixes on the d-line in Smith's first couple of years. They had no other choice. But remember that even the great Nick Saban didn't get things going on the d-line, or the defensive front seven for that matter, in his first four seasons at Michigan State.
Saban had an assortment of snarling young problem-makers on the d-line in '96, '97 and '98. But they didn't start playing like NFL prospects until they became upper classmen.
Losing Nussmeier Will Sting A Little Bit
(Feb. 5) - Doug Nussmeier's decision to leave Michigan State in order to accept a position on Scott Linehan's staff for the St. Louis Rams is a tough loss for the Spartans.
Mainly because Nussmeier is an exceptional dude.
Wherever Nussmeier is, he is invariably the coolest guy in the room. (SpartanMag.com recruiting analyst) Matt Dorsey and I have talked about that in the past, and how it has to help in recruiting to have a guy like Nussmeier walk into a school or a living room or a scouting combine and represent your school. Nussmeier cuts an exceptional image. He is what a lot of these recruits want to become.
He has the visor, the smile, the NFL background as a QB. He's not your average Joe. He's a high-percentile cat.
On the field, whether it's an MSU practice or summer camp, watching Nussmeier work with QBs was like seeing a big brother instruct his little brothers. There was seriousness and fun, but also an immense level of trust and sincerity.
Matt and I once concluded, "If a QB gets visited by UM's Scott Loeffler one week, and then Nussmeier the next, there is just no contest as to who is the more impressive football guy."
Sure, UM has a lot of other things to sell, and MSU is in the process of building. But from a pure positional coaching standpoint, Loeffler can't possibly hold Nussmeier's clipboard.
Nussmeier hit the recruiting trail for the first time three years ago, and he was making a lot of progress toward becoming a huge-time recruiter. If he had had more time in the college ranks, and was able to recruit for a New Year's Day program, he would be a home run hitter on signing day.
From our standpoint in the media, Nussmeier wasn't always a real good quote because I got the idea that he was always trying to say all the right things for all involved.
If you wanted a quote about a QB's development, he could give you some real good stuff. If you were looking for a quote about who was leading on the depth chart, or quotes about negatives from the previous game, you weren't going to get much.
And it didn't take long in 2003 for Jeff Smoker to incorporate these rules into his press interviews. Spartan Magazine's Jack Nowlin dubbed Jeff Smoker "Vanilla Nice" for good reason.
Nussmeier never wanted to say anything that JLS wouldn't approve of. Well, none of the coaches want to say anything that JLS wouldn't approve of. But it seemed to me that this was always at the forefront of Nussmeier's mind. I can respect that, and that might come from his days as an NFL QB when he probably had to say good things about everyone on his team, because that's the smart thing for a young QB to do.
Basically, Nussmeier has every reason to be the most egotistical person that you've ever met, but he is the absolute exact opposite of that.
In short, this guy could probably become president if he wanted to. He says all the right things and avoids mistakes like an air traffic controller.
JLS should have no problem bringing in an excellent QB coach to fill the spot. JLS's network of capable offensive minds is extensive. I would expect him to tap into it with no problem.
But I wonder if we will look back at the brief time that Nussmeier spent at MSU like we do with Golden Pat Ruel, Jim Bollman, Mark Dantonio, Bob Casullo and others who went on to pretty big things.
ONLY THE NEGATIVE STREAKS SEEM TO MATTER
(Jan. 23) - Tom Izzo seemed to have more of a glow than usual after Michigan State's 85-55 victory over Iowa. He said it was a near-perfect performance. It extended the Spartans' win streak to three games, all of which have come against ranked opponents.
Stop and think about that for a second.
Remember that it was just a year ago when everyone was making a big deal about Michigan State's winless streak against ranked opponents. Sure, it was an interesting number. The streak probably merited mention here and there at the bottom of notes packages, once in a while.
But so many people, fans and media alike, focused on that streak, made it the lead angle, and pointed to it as some sort of red flag that something was very, very wrong with the program. Those people were blind to the progress that was being made in wins against unranked opponents, and near-misses against upper echelon teams.
Izzo pointed out last year that maybe the streak wouldn't exist if the Big Ten just plain had more ranked teams, thereby giving the Spartans more chances to snap the streak. But the cynics, many of whom don't know the difference between a v-neck and a v-cut, tend to tune Izzo out whenever he has a reasonable explanation for something. And Izzo is always trying to shed a positive light on the Big Ten, so he didn't want to labor the point about its lack of ranked teams.
Michigan State played only three ranked teams during the regular season last year. The Spartans lost to No. 1 Illinois, lost at Duke, and beat Elite Eight-bound Wisconsin.
Now stop and think about that one some more. MSU lost to No. 1 Illinois and lost at Duke. How many teams in the country could have won one of those games? Maybe North Carolina. That's all.
But why throw logic into the equation? Why attempt to make an apples-to-apples comparison? That's not good for talk radio.
MSU lost both games and didn't get another shot at a ranked team until the last week of February.
This year, Michigan State played ranked opponents in their first five Big Ten games.
Now that Michigan State has won three in a row against ranked opponents, it's a non-issue. The Spartans have five wins against ranked opponents for the year not that anyone is keeping track anymore.
In the post-game press conference following the Iowa game, Izzo's afterglow was interrupted by a question about the upcoming game against Michigan.
Izzo was irritated by the question, but seemed to enjoy being irritated - if that's possible.
"Do I have to talk about that game after a good win?" said Izzo, smiling and snarling at the same time. "I guess I will just say one blunt statement about it. There is no question it's a rivalry. Everybody in the state wanted it to be a rivalry. It wasn't a rivalry when I started because we couldn't beat them. And it wasn't a rivalry in the middle because they didn't beat us. And now the games have been tight games and they are going to be tight games. And they have got a very, very talented team and a good team. I think it will be the kind of game that you all want to say.
"But I will say this: We are looking forward to going down there. We really are. We look forward to going down there and seeing what we can do against what I think is one of the most talented teams in this league."
Izzo has won 12 of his last 13 against Michigan, and it might be 14 of 15 if the teams had met twice in '02 and '03. Yet I'll be the first to say that the streak will have little or no impact on Wednesday's game. The best players on each team had nothing to do with the first eight games in that streak.
Following Michigan's lone win during the 12-1 stretch, in 2003, then-freshman Daniel Horton said this game wasn't much of a rivalry anymore. That might explain why no one gave Michigan State credit for winning the next four straight.
Michigan is one of the seven best teams in the conference. Of the Big Ten's seven best teams, only Ohio State has lost a conference home game this season (thanks to the Spartans). The Wolverines should be expected to defend their home turf against any Big Ten opponent. That's how the league is developing this year.
Yet Izzo knows if Michigan State doesn't win this game, there will be a long line of people ready to sound sirens that the in-state basketball universe has done a 180. People who attend maybe one or two college games a year and then pontificate about the sport as if they were Naismith or Wooden will declare King Michigan State dead. They will conveniently ignore the 3-0 streak against ranked teams, let alone the four Final Fours in seven years.
During the losing streak to Top 25 opponents, Michigan State's games against Michigan were big prior to tip-off. But after each Spartan victory, the wins were dismissed as irrelevant - and focus shifted back to the streak against ranked opponents.
Now that the Spartans have won five games against ranked opponents, watch how quickly the definition of meaningful games will change if the Spartans lose this one game at unranked Michigan.
That's just enough to bring out some constructive irritation in Izzo.
Oh, and I need to amend one of my earlier statements. There is one factor in those 12 Spartan wins in this series since 1998 that could have an impact on Wednesday's game. That factor is Tom Izzo.
FOOTBALL TALK IN JANUARY
(JAN. 20) - Michigan State doesn't call it the Football Bust anymore, and they hold it at the end of recruiting season instead of the end of the football season.
As many of you know, the banquet is a salute to the seniors rather than a traditional bust. The highlight of the program is the end when John L. Smith does a Phil Donahue and introduces each senior and hands them the microphone, and they hug, and the senior says a few things.
Gordie Niebylski spoke the longest during this year's banquet, held Friday night at the Holiday Inn South. He poked some humor at football operations worker Mike Volmar for yelling at Niebylski for parking his Hummer in the wrong part of the parking lot (Gordie also thanked his father for gifting him a Hummer).
There wasn't a lot of emotion on this night. Many of us have been to the old Football Bust when you could expect at least one player to get pretty sappy and emotional, which sometimes can be touching. I suppose that the seniors have gotten over the idea that their careers have ended at MSU by this time, and those emotions have been spent.
Michigan State does the Senior Banquet at this time of year to make the event part of a recruiting weekend. I'm guessing that they want the recruits in attendance to be impressed by the warm relationship between the coach and the players.
Some warmth is good, especially since the visiting recruits will wake up to five or six inches of snow in East Lansing, Saturday morning. Six of the scheduled visitors are from Florida, and one is from Georgia. Michigan State will have to tell those guys this is NFL playoff weather. Or something.
Seriously, some Floridians look forward to seeing snow when they visit here. Some get a kick out of it. It takes a different kind of cat to want to go to college 1,000 miles from home, way up north. It takes a pioneerig spirit. Michigan State has found some good pioneers in Florida in the past. They're out there. And Michigan State needs to get some if they are going to begin taking the next step in rebuilding the program.
They seem to move the banquet along as quickly as possible, maybe so that recruits don't get bored. Award winners run up and get their awards and don't give speeches.
All things considered, I'm guessing that recruits in attendance might have found all of the hugs to be a positive. John L. Smith values having more than just the usual coach-player relationship with players, and I think that comes across a little bit at the banquet.
I spoke with John L. Smith after the banquet. He couldn't talk about specific recruits, but he did acknowledge the obvious, that this is a very, very big recruiting weekend, and there were a few recruit in attendance.
They will attend Saturday's basketball game against Iowa.
"This is a weekend when we can show recruits quite a bit of what it's like on campus and what it's like to be a football player at Michigan State," Smith said.
I asked Smith about the role of new defensive line coach Derrick Jackson as the recruiting season hits the home stretch. Smith said the timing is good in that Michigan State is still chasing several defensive linemen. Jackson is here in time to assist in the recruitment of them. Smith said Jackson hit Florida and Los Angeles and a few points in between in the last few days alone.
During Jackson's job interview, Smith was impressed, among other things, with the way Jackson went to the chalkboard and was emphatic and enthusiastic about concepts, teaching and detailed fundamentals.
Smith, being a d-line position coach from back in the old days, liked what he heard.
Brother Rice High School football coach Al Fracassa was honored as the recipient of the Duffy Daugherty Award. Fracassa is the winningest coach in Michigan high school football history.
Fracassa is an MSU alum, and was a third-string quarterback during the strongest era in MSU football history, playing behind Earl Morrall and Tom Yewcic in the early to mid-1950s.
Fracassa received a standing ovation, Friday night. And he received a word of thanks from Niebylski during Niebylski's senior speech. Fracassa coached Niebylski at Brother Rice.
Smith said the seven mid-year members of the 2006 recruiting class are on campus and adjusting. He is hearing and seeing good things from them as they become acclimated. There is some physical maturity in that group.
Eric Smith was named team MVP, but was not at the banquet to receive the award. He is Honolulu for the Hula Bowl.
Smith and graduating center Chris Morris were not present to receive their Captains Awards. Morris is in Pittsburgh, preparing for NFL Draft combines and workouts.
John L. Smith said Morris, Smith, Domata Peko, and Stefon Wheeler each have a shot at making it in the NFL. "A lot of it depends on finding your way to the right place at the right time," Smith said.
The award winners were:
Jim Adams Award (Unsung Hero): Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year - RB A.J. Jimmerson; Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year - LB Jeff McPherson
Potsy Ross Award (Scholar-Athlete): C Chris Morris
Clarence J. Underwood Jr. Sportsmanship Award: OG Gordon Niebylski
MSU Football Players Association's Community Service & Outreach Award: WR Kyle Brown
Outstanding Offensive Player: QB Drew Stanton
Outstanding Defensive Player: DT Domata Peko
Outstanding Special Teams Player: Jason Teague
Captain's Award: C Chris Morris, DE Clifton Ryan, SS Eric Smith, QB Drew Stanton
Biggie Munn Award (Most Inspirational): SS Eric Smith
Duffy Daugherty Award (Distinguished Alumnus): Al Fracassa
Governor's Award (Most Valuable Player): SS Eric Smith
The award winner that stands out to me is Peko as the defensive player of the year. I like the way that guy approaches things. He's always smiling, when doing an interview, when walking the hallways of the football building, when returning fumbles for touchdowns, when walking to class, when watching basketball games at the Breslin Center with his child. He's a positive guy. And he channeled a lot of that positive attitude into his personal development as a player.
He was pretty good last year as a juco rookie. And he took it up a notch this year, delivering solid consistency in 11 straight games.
NFL people will take a long look at him because his slope of improvement is impressive, and still ascending. Secondly, he is still relatively new to the world of weight training and d-line technique.
I'd like to see his name get called on Draft day.
Also, Teague had a pretty good hug for John L. Smith when it was his turn at the microphone. Teague has gotten in trouble a few times, and the coach could have quit on him. But Smith accepted some criticism, stuck with Teague and told him Thursday night that he fully expects Teague to be back on campus all next year finishing his degree. Teague nodded that yes he would.
In all, it was kind of weird to be part of a football banquet in late January, two months after the final game. But the plan is for future seasons to extend into Jan. 1. If and when the program makes it to that level, having a banquet during the third week of January won't seem so strange.
As for the crowd, it was probably half the size of Football Busts past. But those Busts were promoted more heavily, and usually took place prior to a bowl game when football fever runs stronger.
This banquet wasn't as peppy as the Busts used to be. Even the highlight videos were a bit dry.
John L. Smith spoke with each senior, but didn't say anything about next year. He just thanked fans for coming, thanked everyone associated with the program, by name, then spoke with the seniors, and then wished everyone a good night.
He was available for interviews afterward. Only myself and a writer from the Lansing State Journal were present. It used to be a given that writers from the Detroit papers and elsewhere would be at the Bust. It was a noteworthy event back then.
I kind of expect a state of the team address from the coach at these banquets. It has been interesting to hear what Perles, Saban, Williams, Heathcote and Izzo have said to fans in this setting in the past.
I remember Saban's "I have a vision for the type of players you all can become" speech in 1998, after the conclusion of a highly disappointing season.
The next year, I pulled myself out of bed to go to the 1999 Football Bust. I had worked about 25 straight hours to finish an issue of SPARTAN Magazine and had to pop some caffeine to make it to the Football Bust with my eyes open.
I got there just in time for Saban's speech. I expected this speech to be one of Saban's best. But it was kind of short. And he didn't have any strong comments.
I remember thinking: That was a strange, antiseptic speech. Saban didn't crow about being 9-2. He didn't do any rah-rah stuff about aiming for the Rose Bowl next year.
That's what I wanted to hear. Those were the quotes I expected to type into a story that night. But Saban gave us nothing. I remember thinking that I should have stayed in bed.
And the next night, we heard he was headed to LSU. Then it all made sense.
Anyway, every time I sit down with John L. Smith for the roundtable portion of a press conference, I come away thinking that his handle on things at Michigan State is better than some of us may realize, regardless of the outcome of the most recent game.
I think Smith is capable of delivering a good state of the program address at the Senior Banquet. And he probably should since he changed the name of the event and moved it back two months. He altered a tradition, which is okay if it can be used as a recruiting tool. And it's okay if he capitalizes on the occasion as a means of communication.
Smith shook a lot of hands and was his usual smiling, approachable self. But I think he misses an opportunity to impress a lot more people by not hogging the mic a little longer at these things and conveying the conrol and optimism that I get from him when I talk to him at the roundtables.
A lot of important, influential, deep-pocketed people left the '98 Football Bust feeling good about Saban and the direction of the program despite the 6-loss season and blowout defeat at Penn State.
Propaganda isn't everything. It can carry you only so far. But a little January feel-good can't hurt.
Smith impresses me as a person and a football coach. He has had to make some adaptations. Those adaptations are still taking place. Whether or not he can make enough adaptations and improvements in time to show satisfactory progress by this time next year remains to be seen.
In time, I think that he can build a perennial bowl program at Michigan State. But he must realize that it needs to start next year.
Smith needs to put an imprint on defense next year. Like most head coaches, he has delegated much of the scheming and X's and O's and teaching on that side of the ball to others. But this year, it's Smith's reputation that is on the line.
Smith moved up the coaching ranks as a defensive coordinator. He needs to call on that expertise in the coming months to succeed in the most important quality control campaign of his career. He needs to make sure that his coaches get as much out of the talent as they used to at Louisville. The season probably depends on it, because the offense should be good again, provided that they find a capable left tackle to succeed Stefon Wheeler.
Smith has this weekend and next weekend to put hay in the barn for the future (read: harvesting recruits).
Then come mat drills and off-season conditioning and probably some 6 a.m., outdoor workouts in the snow. Character has been on an upswing, they say. The Spartans will keep swinging, looking for knockout power.
IZZO SLOWED IT DOWN FOR A REASON
(JAN. 20) - For Tom Izzo, all wins are pretty - especially road wins against ranked Big Ten teams. But if you're a fan who thinks Michigan State's victory over Ohio State had some ugliness to it, Izzo kind of agrees.
"It was a funny win because it looked like we just hung on," Izzo said earlier in the week, as preparation for Saturday's game with Iowa began. "And we did hang on. But I felt it was a game we deserved to win because I thought we played well enough the whole game, we just had a seven-minute stretch where we didn't score."
Did Michigan State slow up its offense and work the clock a bit more than Izzo teams usually do? Yes.
Was there a good reason for it? Yes.
Izzo said some players were wearing down and cramping (again). When there were runs of extended play, Ohio State seemed to be the faster, fresher team the longer that play went without a whistle.
Michigan State stuck with a seven-man rotation. That won't usually be the case. Marquise Gray is going to be a double-digit minute guy in most games. But MSU had trouble finding a guy in the Ohio State lineup that Gray could guard. Terence Dials was too skilled and experienced on the low block. J.J. Sullinger was too quick and crafty on the perimeter at power forward. It wasn't Gray's game. He played just two minutes.
So that meant that Matt Trannon had to play all of his minutes at power forward. Which meant that freshman Travis Walton was the only guy who subbed in for Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Drew Neitzel. Ager, Brown and Neitzel had to play a ton of minutes. They each logged more than 44.
Ohio State had some guys who played a lot of minutes, but OSU doesn't ask its wings to sprint the wide lanes in transition, on makes or misses, every single time. This is a Michigan State staple. It usually wears out the opponent. But Michigan State usually has more than one wing reserve when it puts the system to work.
"We had a lot of things happen in that game that maybe aided our decision to maybe holding the ball more at the end, in that one overtime," Izzo said. "In the first overtime, Paul (Davis) started cramping up a little bit. In the second overtime, he played most of it with slight cramps in his legs.
"It was kind of our fault, but give them some credit and understand that we kind of slowed it up and we did it on purpose to save a couple of guys. I think we got a little stagnant, but there was nothing we could do, just because of who we had to play and how many minutes we had to play them.
"I felt like guys were pretty worn out. So you look at what you could do.
"So that was the theory behind it. But I didn't think we handled some situations very well down the stretch: taking it to the sidelines, we had to waste all our time outs. But it was two pretty good teams, too. I mean they are athletic and they are tough and they are experienced.
"That's just the way it happened. It's not like I have a ton of options. We had gone to Paul a lot. Shannon did some up there too."
Michigan State can get better fuel mileage in future games if and when Gray is able to stay on the court longer. Trannon is still going to be needed as a power forward contributor. But Michigan State needs other post players to earn trust, such as Goran Suton, Idong Ibok and Delco Rowley. If any of the three can become solid on a consistent basis, Trannon will be able to spread more of his minutes to the wing - which can give Brown, Ager and Neitzel more rest.
Meanwhile, as we reported in yesterday's Spartan Plus, freshman guard Maurice Joseph has been practicing better and better. Michigan State coaches have not given up on the possibility of sneaking him onto the court for three or four valuable minutes per game.
Michigan State's star performers will be faster, fresher and more efficient if some of the role players in the middle of the roster can improve over the next few weeks.
Bilas and Izzo are pals. They have hung out a little bit in the past 10 months. I'd bet a Jersey Giant that Bilas stole that special teams analogy from Izzo. That's fine. But I'd like to see Bilas cite Izzo when he makes the analogy and not try to come off as if it is a Bilas orginal.
Other than that, I don't have any criticisms of Bilas. He's worth listening to.
Both were huge baskets. The Spartans hadn't shown the sideline screen tendency in shot clock situations all year (with the point guard handling it). Ohio State was noticeably unready for it. That's rare because OSU scouts your stuff as well as any defense in the Big Ten.
MSU used to ride the heck out of the sideline screen options in the Cleaves era, from the crunch time perfection of the victory over Ole Miss in the second round of the 1999 Tournament, to the downscreen-and-pop jumpers that the play opened up for Peterson and AJ Granger during the legendary comeback against Iowa State in the 2000 Regional Finals.
Izzo says he plans to go back to Ager for clearouts in crunch-time situations in the future. But sometimes I'm not sure if Izzo is telling the truth. He has to like what he saw out of the sideline screen series with Neitzel probing the defense.
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MSU FRESH FOR SKEWED SCHEDULE
(JAN. 3) - I think it's good for Michigan State that the Spartans had another low-stress December.
In 2002, 2003 and 2004, Michigan State faced must-win situations in virtually every game after Jan. 1. Brutal early-season schedules caused losses to pile up in those seasons, sometimes putting Michigan State on the ugly side of .500 for long stretches. Michigan State rebounded and made the Elite Eight in 2003. But I think regular season anxiety caught up with the 2002 and 2004 teams, and took something out of their legs in March.
A difficult schedule usually helps a team build toughness and character. But when that team has a few injuries and defections and loses too many of those games, it can hurt confidence and deplete a team's mental energy.
Last year, the schedule wasn't packed with barbed wire for a change. The Spartans built a cushion in the win column and they didn't have to fret for their NCAA Tournament lives throughout January and February as was the case in those other seasons. I think this helped them stay mentally and psychologically fresh heading into March.
Losing to Wisconsin and Illinois caused strife last year because they cost Michigan State a chance to win the Big Ten title. Some media and fans jumped on the seniors, and questioned the quality of the program, unaware that Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan State were building teams that would be among the last eight standing in March.
Tom Izzo took it personally. He says he hated last year. But it made the Spartans stronger in the end, and they ran all the way to the Final Four, led North Carolina at halftime, and might have won that game on legs and lungs if Alan Anderson, the team MVP, hadn't injured his knee against Kentucky in the Regional Finals.
Last year's drama drew the team closer, helped them focus, made them mad. Meanwhile, they had plenty of mental energy in reserve for March.
This year, the Spartans enter the Big Ten schedule with a fine 12-2 record, and a full tank of mental energy. But Izzo says a train wreck (his words) is coming, with the onset of a Big Ten schedule that is much more difficult than other contending teams.
BREAKING DOWN THE SCHEDULE
There has been a lot of talk about Michigan State's problematic Big Ten schedule. Here's what you need to know:
Penn State, Purdue and Northwestern are the three worst teams in the Big Ten. The Big Ten scheduling computer gave Michigan State only one game apiece with those three teams. That are only three cupcakes for the Spartans.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Ohio State will play six games against those three teams.
Most agree that there are seven solid/strong teams in the Big Ten. MSU is the only team that plays the other six twice apiece.
Strangely, MSU begins the Big Ten season with six straight games against those teams, and then wraps up the season with six straight against those teams. No team in the Big Ten has a stretch like MSU's six-game gauntlet - and MSU has to go through it twice.
"It is a brutal, brutal, brutal schedule," Izzo said "If you went through everybody's schedule, which I have done, there is none even close."
A full round-robin conference schedule is the only fair way to settle the Big Ten championship. But to do so, the Big Ten would probably have to get rid of the Big Ten Tournament. I wouldn't be in favor of eliminating the Big Ten Tournament because I think the one-and-done neutral site nature of it has helped Big Ten teams prepare for the NCAA Tournament.
Anyone remember Izzo's sledgehammer stunt last year? It set the tone for NCAA Tournament focus and preparation.
What would he have sledgehammered if he didn't have a game tape of the previous day's loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament? Sometimes it's good to lose in that tournament, go home, bust up some chalkboards, and then plot ambushes of Duke and Kentucky.
As for this year's conference race, the Spartans will need to be two or three big wins better than the other contenders in order to merely keep up with them in the overall wins column.
"If there is one thing that these seniors and juniors are used to, it's playing tough schedules and playing in bizarre situations back-to-back," Izzo said. "We are just going to have to handle things and keep some semblance. Whether we win some or lose some, winning doesn't mean everything and losing is not going to mean everything. We can be pretty good and be 2-4. And we could be pretty good and be 6-0. I have no idea."
If Michigan State stays healthy, this would seem to be Izzo's best chance to win a Big Ten title in the last five years. But the schedule makes the task harder than it should be, and the conference is deeper than it has been at any time since 2000.
Indiana has looked awesome at times this year, although the Hoosiers were stale last night against Michigan. Illinois (14-0) is better than anyone expected, although their schedule has been suspect. Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Ohio State have those scheduling breaks - and the Badgers have been very tough at home in recent years.
MSU has one scheduling break in comparison to other teams in the Big Ten: The Spartans don't have to play Michigan State.
Izzo wants sharper habits heading into new year
(DEC. 31) EAST LANSING - I like quotes that you don't see very often.
Like this one from Tom Izzo the other night:
"I'm going to go into that game not really worrying one bit about Coppin State," Izzo said of today's matchup against the winless visitors. "I'm going to worry about Michigan State."
No one is more genuinely respectful of opposing teams and coaches than Izzo. No one.
His comment isn't meant as a slam against Coppin State. Izzo is just trying to sharpen the sense of urgency within his own program.
Michigan State is pretty good. But Izzo is getting impatient. Some things that need to get corrected aren't getting corrected. And time is running out before Big Ten reality sets in with games at Illinois and Wisconsin, followed by a home game against a splendid Indiana team.
Izzo said Michigan State practiced on Thursday and Friday with the Illini and Badgers in mind, not Coppin State.
Again, this is no disrespect to Coppin State. And I love that Izzo was honest enough to describe things the way he did heading into the last weekend of the non-conference season.
"Hopefully we will get better in the next two days because we are not good enough right now," he said after Wednesday's slow-starting victory over Tennessee Tech.
These players have been good. They have been a B or B-minus in the areas of urgency and accountability. Of course, Izzo demands A-plusses in those categories.
It has probably been hard for this team to gain proper fire drill focus while in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. Izzo usually can point to a few more losses as a means of scaring his team straight. But this team has been winning, albeit not with the discipline Izzo wants. Michigan State ranked last in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense heading into the week.
Team veterans such as Paul Davis and Maurice Ager need to be the ones who step up and get on teammates, and get on themselves, when proper habits aren't being displayed in games or practice.
They'll get that chance today against an overmatched opponent. But the opponent, right now, doesn't matter.
THE OPPONENT IS YOURSELF
Izzo says his team needs to play against itself. Regardless of the opponent, Izzo wants maximum effort with perfection being the goal. This, Izzo says, is what Duke does. And that's why Duke blows out their cupcake opponents. That's the key to consistency, and then intimidation.
Izzo doesn't want big leads for the sake of scoreboard beauty. He wants big leads as a barometer for hard effort. He wants a controlled frenzy on the glass, on defense, on the break, the type of crude precision that has been emblematic of his Final Four teams. This team shows short glimpses of it every once in a while, but not enough for Izzo's liking.
In 2003 and 2005, Izzo's teams peaked in time for memorable runs in the NCAA Tournament. Those teams suffered some bruises in the conference season. But they were able to remain in the conference race deep into the season.
This year, Michigan State can't afford to peak late if the Spartans want to win a Big Ten title. The schedule is too tough too early, and Michigan State has a more difficult schedule than the other contenders.
Michigan State is much better right now than they were at this time last year, although last year's team made it all the way to the Final Four. But that team didn't have the early-January assignments that this team will have.
Last year's team eventually harnessed Final Four effort and efficiency. This year's team has Final Four talent. But they don't show a Final Four effort. Not yet, anyway. And they will need to acquire that type of personality earlier this year, in order to make a run at their conference goals.
GOING TO THE WHIP
Izzo is going to the whip a little earlier this year. Michigan State's offense has looked very good at times this year. But Izzo isn't impressed. Offense is pretty, but it doesn't win championships. Izzo and his assistants have repeated this mantra for the past 10 days.
In his hotel room prior to the Wisconsin-Green Bay game last week, Izzo caught a few minutes of an ESPN feature on the Chuck Daly era Detroit Pistons. Daly said the Pistons were a pretty good team when they had one of the NBA's best offenses. But Daly said they didn't become a championship team until they made a commitment to defense.
Izzo stormed out of the room as if it had been a motivational seminar. Daly didn't say anything that Izzo didn't already know. But Izzo wishes everyone else had such clarity. People love a pretty offense. Yet Izzo sometimes feels like the world leaves it up to him to convince talented offensive players that there is so much more to being a championship player than just shooting a basketball.
The Michigan State offense is far from perfect, by the way.
Izzo was irritated by some point guard decisions during Wednesday's victory over Tennessee Tech. Drew Neitzel will major in art of guard decisions between now and the rest of his time at Michigan State. He's a great, coachable kid. He has the personality that can endure some Izzo barbs and come back for more. Izzo enjoys having that kind of student. But Izzo needs Neitzel to start passing more quizzes.
Tennessee Tech threw some good pressure defense at Michigan State, and mixed in some well-executed, long-armed traps. Michigan State had trouble getting into its offense at times. It was a great lab exercise for the Spartans.
And then when Izzo called the proper plays, Neitzel didn't always execute. There was a screen and roll out of a 1-4 set that resulted in a wide-open Goran Suton as the roll man midway through the first half. Neitzel didn't recognize it, didn't throw the dump-down pass. MSU didn't score that trip, as MSU stayed at the 7-point mark for 12 possessions.
In order to beat Illinois and Wisconsin and cope with an unfair Big Ten schedule, Michigan State isn't going to be able to afford to let scoring windows come and go. Against the better teams, Neitzel needs to deliver the proper pass on time and on target. Scoring windows will be fewer against Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. And the games will be closer. Can't waste opportunities. Tennessee Tech helped drive home the fact that MSU has a tendency to be wasteful on offense.
Michigan State must get better at recognizing open offensive windows and capitalizing on them. And the Spartans must achieve that level of play earlier than in past years because the early Big Ten schedule is much harder this year.
Neitzel had a couple of other plays that weren't operated to Izzo's standard of perfection.
"We just didn't get our break rolling," Izzo said. "Our points really struggled early and they kind of took them out of the game and I don't we recovered from that even though Drew played better in the second half."
Michigan State will be better against pressure defenses in the near future because Tennessee Tech showed the Spartans that they aren't great. Izzo knows it. And he is glad Tennessee Tech helped point it out.
Tennessee Tech has been a good penetrating offense. Michigan State has been weak on defense in allowing dribble penetration. But in this game, Michigan State was much better in that category.
As for the power forward position, that guy needs to be an ace in low post defense and help defense from the weak side. Marquise Gray struggled at times in carrying out the assignment of jumping to ball to stop a curl-and-catch through the lane. Suton had trouble once again with on-ball defense away from the basket against a quicker man. Matt Trannon's value was amplified by his absence (sprained ankle, out at least a week).
Meanwhile, Delco Rowley provided some of the most constructive minutes of his career. He was a factor on the boards, including five offensive rebounds. He was good with defensive communication, as usual. But he needs to get himself in proper position more consistently, and show some footwork when he gets there.
But his effort and intensity were good. That's the type of habit development others need.
NEED TO BE A GRINCH
Tennessee Tech (8-3) beat Oregon State by 28 and has a solid chance to overthrow Murray State and become the NCAA Tournament representative out of the Ohio Valley Conference.
Tennessee Tech was a great opponent. Not because they are a great team. But because they gave MSU a nice challenge in some areas that needed challenging.
And it was a good time to face a fiesty opponent Michigan State was coming off a sleepy holiday break, one that made Izzo growl over the fact that he let them get fat on Christmas cookies for an extra day and a half. He brought them back for two-a-day practices on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 26 and 27.
In past years, he called them back to East Lansing smack dab in the middle of Christmas dinner.
"It's always a struggle when you go to Christmas break," Izzo said. "As a coach, you have to make a lot of decisions. When do you bring them back? I brought one team back on Christmas Eve, like Kentucky and Oklahoma did this year, and a lot of parents complained about that.
"And so you have to make some tough decisions, and (against Tennessee Tech) we looked like a team that came off a four-day break. I thought we had a couple of decent practices, but we weren't very sharp, we weren't very efficient offensively.
"I didn't think our conditioning was great. We just looked like a team that came off of Christmas break and were sluggish."
Note to self: Look for Izzo to play Christmas Grinch in coming seasons. This year's team had the talent to come back from a heavy Christmas and win despite sluggishness. Next year might be different. Team parents need to get ready for the possibility of a shortened holiday next year, and maybe exchange presents a day or so early.
And now comes Coppin State, which won't be as challenging of a lab test as was Tennessee Tech. That's why this game is a test of Michigan State versus Michigan State more than anything.
"If we win that game, we do. If we lose it, we do," Izzo said of the Coppin State game. "That sounds ridiculous, but I'm a little bit more concerned about how much we are getting better in the areas of deficiency: point guard play, power forward play, turnovers, defensive penetration. Those are the areas."
Izzo has formed a list. He has checked it more than twice. And he will continue to check it. That's how he gets it done better than anyone in the country.
Regardless of today's opponent, regardless of the score, he wants to see better execution and recognition and decisions by the point guard; better defensive awareness, positioning and recognition by the power forwards; fewer turnovers. And he wants his star players to play like star players every game, every minute. He wants good habits.
If Michigan State starts showing some adherence to these details, they might be ready to compete the first week of January. Izzo is never sure. That's what makes him good.
Photo says it all: Izzo pushes, players respond
(Dec. 24) - You may have seen the photo in various newspapers following Michigan State's 98-69 victory at Wisconsin-Green Bay last Wednesday.
It was an Associated Press photo. It accompanied many game stories across the state in Thursday's editions.
The photo said more than most game stories any of us will write all year. Coach Tom Izzo's strong reprimand and correction of Paul Davis illustrates much of what's right with this team and this program right now.
Davis, the only player in America averaging a double-double while scoring 20-plus per game, is having an All-America caliber season. He has been outstanding, and can get better. Izzo says he is looking forward to utilizing Davis away from the basket more as the season progresses. And he would like to get peak defense and rebounding from him along the way.
Davis said he came to Michigan State, among other things, because he believed Izzo could help him learn to love the game of basketball. Davis wanted to be pushed. Izzo has lived up to that deal.
Davis has been great this year. But the minute he lets his foot off the gas pedal, Izzo is there to hold him accountable to the preseason goals that Davis set for himself and for the team. Davis wants to win a regular season championship. He has never won one at any level. He wants one this year, badly. That was obvious in the way that he demanded from his teammates during the first week of practice way back in October.
Davis had another stat-stuffer outing at Green Bay. He had 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting in 27 minutes. He also had eight rebounds.
But Izzo benched Davis for a few minutes midway through the game. He said Davis started to "drift" a bit.
This is precisely the difference between Michigan and Michigan State right now. Both programs have good players. But Michigan's are allowed to drift, make mistakes, and stay on the floor apparently without being held accountable for taking vacations. (For more on this, go to the The Hoops Message Board , where I posted specifics.)
Michigan State's errors get pointed out immediately. And usually, they get corrected.
First of all, Davis wants to get corrected. He wants to be pushed. You can see it in his body language in this photo. He is leaning into the lecture, absorbing the message. And he played inspired basketball afterward.
In this photo, it's as if Davis can't wait to get back onto the court to make amends.
Look at Izzo. He is dealing some brutal facts to Davis, but there is no rancor or bitterness in Izzo's face. The teacher cares for the pupil. He is fond of Davis. And that comes across in this photo, even though Izzo is giving him the business.
Then look at Shannon Brown, at left. He is leaning into the lecture too, seeming to get something from it.
Usually, on any bench all across America, when a coach is lecturing a player, other players lean away and try not to listen, just thankful that they aren't the target. They want to get as far removed from the yelling as possible.
But not here, for some reason. Brown is on the edge of his seat, listening, contributing to the urgency of the situation.
And then look a few rows back. It's former Spartan Charlie Bell. Bell is now a member of the Milwaukee Bucks after a few seasons as a pro star in Europe. The fact that he would drive from Milwaukee to Green Bay in order to capitalize on a chance to see Michigan State play is a compliment to the program.
Bell won four Big Ten titles while at Michigan State and played in three Final Fours. He was known as a defensive stopper and great rebounding guard for those teams. He has as many rings as anyone who has ever played in the Big Ten.
He was a spot scorer at Michigan State, and had a triple-double in one game - the only Spartan to do this other than Earvin Johnson.
Like Davis, Bell entered Christmas break during the 2000-2001 season playing as well as anyone in America at his position. He tailed off a bit in the second half of the year, but still had a strong senior campaign.
He polished his offense and scoring ability while playing in Europe. But he says the foundation of becoming an all-around player was built at Michigan State.
He still follows the Spartans, and supports the program. He walked with the gallery while Izzo played 18 holes with Tiger Woods last summer.
And now he is an interested spectator as Izzo tries to whip this year's Spartans into a champion.
Bell was on the receiving end of Izzo lectures a few years ago. He knows that Izzo's methods of tightening the screws and getting results are time-tested.
Bell told a handful of reporters on Wednesday that he thinks Michigan State is going to win the national championship this year.
It's going to take a lot of work. It's going to take some corrections. It's going to take some patience and understanding on behalf of players and coaches. It is going to take a sense of urgency and commitment.
It is going to take everything that you see in that photo that ran on the Associated Press wire.
Victory Over CSU Like A Group Intervention
(DEC. 17) - Michigan State's 83-75 victory over Cleveland State did not provide a lot of impressive moments on the basketball court. But off the court, it was like a group intervention. Lots of people who care. Lots of criticism to go around, trying to make each other better.
He was calm. He was pointed. He was disappointed. His criticisms were so much like Tom Izzo's have been over the last two weeks that Izzo had to make Magic swear, in front of the team, that the two hadn't spoken earlier in the day and synchronized their stories.
I mean when have you ever heard an opposing coach say something like that?
Garland is a former Izzo assistant. He was Izzo's roommate and teammate at Northern Michigan a hundred years ago. Garland can say anything he darn well pleases about anything of Izzo's.
This climate is part of what makes Michigan State basketball unique. It's not a stuffy place. It's a bottom-line place. Everything is open, honest and free for discussion or hands-on action.
It's kind of like the old time story about the little boy who did something wrong at the end of the street and is called home by his angry mother, and gets a spanking from every mother on the block as he makes his way down the sidewalk.
Once in a while, the village has a hand in raising a Spartan basketball team.
Garland is a former Izzo assistant. At Michigan State, he was in charge of self scouting and quality control, which means he made reports on what the hell the team was doing wrong even when they were winning by 20.
"I don't know why (they suck so bad) right now," Garland said after the game, with me adding the words in the parentheses. "I don't see them every single day. I do know those kids and I know that they're capable."
Yet Garland had these words of hope:
"The thing about it is, you know Tom is going to get those kids playing some defense. Sometimes when kids are so good offensively, it is just hard for them and they kind of relent.
"But I don't see them continuing not to guard throughout the course of the year. They are going to shore up and they are going to buckle down and start guarding somebody. You watch what I tell you."
He'll be right. Izzo will get this team playing fine defense, once they get enough practices, once they get the choreography down, once Magic guilt-trips them again during Saturday's practice.
And that's what makes Friday night's woofing so entertaining. It's like yelling at a 4.0 student for getting a B-plus on a mid-term in gym.
It will all get straightened out, largely because there are so many exceptional people involved, holding each other accountable. And some pretty good people doing the listening and playing.
Hey, Michigan State's defense isn't that bad. Cleveland State made a lot of 3-pointers, but they shot only 40 percent for the night. And MSU played very good defense last weekend against a fine Wichita State team.
Michigan State also locked down pretty good during key junctures against a Boston College lineup full of mismatch talent.
This week, the Spartans practiced with a fractured lineup due to final exams, which - by the way - are emphasized with as much importance in this program as they should be in all other programs.
Michigan State will be very good pretty soon. But in the meantime, it's kind of fun to beat on them a little bit, put our hands on our hips, point a finger at them, and yell, "That's just not right. We're big-pant people!"
Okay, next game in Sunday. Maybe Michigan State will finally KO a team early and we'll get to see Maurice Joseph play.
"It's enough talk," Paul Davis said. "It's time to man up and do it. That's all there is to it."
QUICK TAKE ON GA TECH GAME AND ROLE DEVELOPMENT
(Dec. 1) - As soon as Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown can reduce their minutes per game from about 35 to 31 you will see more 100 percent exertion from them, better defense from them, better rebounding from them, better shot accuracy, the whole thing.
I realize that Brown was pretty darn accurate on Wednesday night, but he took some inopportune vacations on defense late in the game. He probably didn't even realize he was doing so, and won't realize it until he sees the film.
He's a good guy. He will work hard. He will get it right. But he won't get it all the way right until MSU is able to cut his minutes to a rock-hard 32.
When these wings have to go all 15 rounds, it's natural for them to look for little periods here and there to pace themselves. In order for MSU to rebound, run the break and defend like MSU is accustomed to doing, you need more than 5 minutes of rest per game.
How do they trim their minutes? Matt Trannon.
If Trannon can provide 10 solid minutes at the wing per game, Brown, Ager and (yes) Neitzel will all be able to play less, and they will play with more efficiency and effectiveness.
I put the (yes) next to Drew Neitzel's name because I realize that, yes, he played an excellent game against Georgia Tech. I think the best way to get more good games out of him in the long run would be to reduce how much he has to play at the two.
Tom Izzo knows this and he is working on it. He is looking forward to getting Trannon into the lineup this weekend against Arkansas-Little Rock in Grand Rapids.
Trannon was a middle reliever last year at power forward. This year, with a log jam of developing post players and a shortage of wing players, Trannon will be asked to play the three rather than the four. That's where he is needed - more so than many of us ever imagined.
I asked assistant coach Dwayne Stephens if he felt Trannon could meet Izzo's standards as a wing sprinter. Stephens felt that would be no problem. They like Trannon's feel for the game and basketball I.Q.
Meanwhile, they will keep trying to get time from Maurice Joseph. If he can provide just four minutes per game, it will make the other wings fresher and better and maybe even provide some foul insurance for some game at some point in the season.
MSU needs to blow out Arkansas Little-Rock early and get Trannon and Joseph some minutes and fuel the all-important developmental process.
IZZO AND THE ART OF THE 3-ON-1 TIME OUT
(Nov. 27) - We saw a new one from Tom Izzo on Sunday afternoon.
It wasn't a move that can be drawn up on a chalkboard, or demonstrated at a coaching clinic. But Izzo's angry, hasty, scare-and-repair timeout midway through the second half of the Spartans' victory over I.P.-Fort Wayne said as much about his coaching style and building a program than anything he could write in a coaching manual.
In a game that desperately needed a jolt of Spartan horsepower, Michigan State had a three-on-one fast break roaring toward the rim when Izzo jumped off the bench and called time out.
He took three angry strides toward Goran Suton.
"I wanted to walk to the bench, but I couldn't," Suton said. "So I ran over there. I knew what was coming."
Moments earlier, Suton had eased up on a chance to dive head first for a loose ball. Suton seemed to shy away when he saw that an opposing player was charging at the ball from the other direction.
"I think I hesitated a little bit and didn't go for it," Suton said. "It was a delayed reaction by me."
A desperate dive could have resulted in a broken nose, a concussion, stitches. But such aggression is expected from Michigan State players. Spartans are supposed to be so predictably aggressive that players for the other team are supposed to be the ones who pull up short. Not Spartans.
That's the way Izzo built it. Get there first with the most. It's Napoleonic. And it works.
The fact that Izzo would abort a chance for a transition dunk and momentum boost in order to stop play and drive home a point made this more than a lesson. It became an honors crash course in Spartanology: Floor Burn Basketball.
Suton has been playing well. And that probably made him a more likely target for this kind of lesson from Izzo.
Suton, a redshirt-freshman from Bosnia via Lansing Everett, has been scoring and rebounding with knack and a rate of productivity that most didn't expect from him for a year or two. He earned crunch time minutes in close games during the Maui Invitational.
And here he was again, putting up nice numbers. He had nine points and nine rebounds. He played 20 minutes, underscoring the fact that he has passed juniors Drew Naymick and Delco Rowley in the playing group.
In fact, Suton even managed to win that loose ball that he pursued half-heartedly.
In Big Ten play, Suton won't win a 50-50 ball like that with a 50-percent effort.
Izzo put a shoe to Suton's tail, just to make sure the rookie wasn't beginning to take his double-digit minutes for granted.
"I told him it would never happen again," Suton said.
If Suton had been struggling, Izzo probably wouldn't have made such a public point of correcting Suton. But Suton is playing well in most areas, and he is an amiable, coachable guy. Izzo knew Suton would accept that kind of button pushing and react positively.
In the post-game press conference, Izzo was asked about Suton's near double-double.
"I'm disappointed in the loose ball," Izzo said in a stern manner that suggested that this was all that he wanted to say about Suton.
Izzo rarely gives one-sentences answers. He almost never answers questions in a manner that discourages follow-up questions. But he did so on this day, on the subject of Goran Suton. He was sending another message.
A few minutes later, Izzo got back on the subject, and expanded it to include another freshman. When asked if perhaps the tiresome trip to Maui could be blamed for Michigan State's sluggish performance on Sunday, Izzo said: "I don't know, but I can't use that as an excuse forever.
"I can understand it and I can deal with it. But when I have a Travis Walton walking around out there and giving up threes because he is walking, or when I have a Goran Suton - who did play pretty well, by the way - but if he ever embarrasses Antonio Smith, Andre Hutson or any of you in the stands by looking down on a loose ball again, he won't see as much of the court. That is a guarantee and a promise."
Smith, of course, is the Spartan strongman who laid the cornerstone to the Izzo era of knuckle-busting aggression. He passed it on to Hutson.
Izzo tells current players that they disgrace the efforts of past Spartans if they don't uphold a similar ethic.
"I just think that's inexcusable, as I think 15,000 people did," Izzo said of Suton's error. "Thank you for all helping me encourage him that that is unacceptable because I heard it from some 4-year-old up in the nickel seats; he was going 'Oh my god.' And I kind of said the same thing.
"We have some learning to do. We have to get back to playing Spartan basketball."
And with a few well-placed time outs and sideline lectures, Izzo took steps toward getting back to Spartan basketball.
His point well-made and well-taken, Izzo offered some compliments.
"I guess I should be fair to G," Izzo said. "G (Suton) has played very well for us. And I thought him and Paul Davis made some passes together. There was some chemistry there.
"G's problem, I think, in high school was learning how to go hard all the time. It continued his first year of college. It is getting better. He has gotten his body in better shape. But it has got to improve if he is going to be a player like I think he can be."
That's the bottom line. It's about improvement. It's about cracking the whip during a sleepy fifth game of a 29-game schedule. It's about taking measures to get development and meaning out of every minute of every game and every practice.
And some day, I think the 3-on-1 time out will be one of the things we tell our grandkids about when we try to get them to understand what kind of coach Tom Izzo was.
LAST WINTER'S DISCONTENT
OCT. 14 - Remember last January and February when writers and commentators and talk show callers and hosts were making such a big deal out of Spartan basketball's winless streak against ranked opponents?
Did that end up making much of a difference in March?
Critics spent so much time pointing to a number on a stat sheet that they forgot to look for actual player development, offensive development and defensive development.
Most of those critics wouldn't know a pick and roll from a pick of the nose.
Might as well point to a number when you are unable to identify anything else that happens on a basketball court.
Sure, it was a stat worth noting, but it got far too much attention. When looking at the streak closer, some of us were quick to dismiss its relevance.
I'll let you know when I see a problem. That, my friends, wasn't a problem.
As for practice this week, Tom Izzo said on Tuesday that the first unit has been tremendous. However, he is careful not to draw too many conclusions because they defense they are facing in practice isn't quite as good as it was when Bograkos, Torbert and Anderson were around.
Still, Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown appear to have taken it up a major notch.
Oct. 22 - Dot Comp returns for the first time this fall, with a response to the following post on The Underground Message Board from "Wags1996:"
"I still say this team goes 7-4, with a chance of 8-4. EVERYBODY thought this was going to be an average to below-average team ..."
Dot Comp's response:
You're right on all fronts.
We started the Spartan Magazine Radio show tonight with the thought that part of the reason for the frustration is due to the mixed signals we have received from the Spartans.
The main reason people are upset about being 4-3, about losing to OSU, UM and Northwestern is because they have seen this team look shockingly good against Top 15 teams like ND and OSU, and come storming back against UM.
We have seen the ceiling. It's higher than most of us thought it would be back in August. So once we see the ceiling, we get mad when the team can't stay there.
It's all about shooting for potential. If you are perceived to be falling below your potential, there will be frustration.
The part that we always forget is that it might have taken some pretty good coaching, player development and team development to get the team to the point that it could go to OSU and gain 450 yards. That just ain't done by too many folks.
More Dot Comp archives.