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Michigan State doesn't dwell on late-season struggles

Coach Tom Izzo, whose team plays UCLA on Thursday in an NCAA tournament Southeast Regional game, is choosing to focus on the positives.

March 15, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo talks with his players during a timeout in a 74-56 victory over Purdue in the Big Ten Conference tournament on Friday.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo talks with his players during a timeout in… (Kirthmon F. Dozier / McClatchy-Tribune )

Michigan State's Big Ten Conference rivals might have had to stifle a chuckle earlier this season when Spartans fans reached the line in their fight song proclaiming their "specialty is winning."

Oh, yeah? What about that .500 record in January and 3-4 mark in February?

At one point, Michigan State was 14-11 and faced the possibility of going from consecutive Final Fours to being left out of the NCAA tournament.

So you must forgive Coach Tom Izzo if he isn't all mopey these days about his team failing to meet expectations after being bestowed with a No. 2 preseason national ranking.

The only number that matters to Izzo is that Michigan State is among the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament. The 10th-seeded Spartans (19-14) will play seventh-seeded UCLA (22-10) on Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., in their Southeast Regional opener.

"Even though we dropped off the face of the Earth for a while there, everybody else has gone through some struggles, and some of those teams are sitting home," Izzo said Monday during a news conference in East Lansing, Mich.

"So instead of complaining about what we didn't do, I'm starting to look forward to say, 'You know what, we've had a lot of things we went through and we survived somewhat.' "

Michigan State actually thrived for a day during the Big Ten tournament, getting a career-high 30 points from senior guard Kalin Lucas in a 74-56 quarterfinal victory over ninth-ranked Purdue. Then the inconsistency that has plagued the Spartans resurfaced during a 61-48 semifinal loss to Penn State.

It's not as if Michigan State suffers from a talent deficiency. Lucas has averaged 20.9 points in his last 14 games, forward Draymond Green logged a triple-double this season against Penn State and guard Durrell Summers has made at least three three-pointers in 11 games.

Getting those stars to align has been the issue.

"When you're going to be a great team, you have to have two or three guys that are playing consistent all the time," Izzo said. "We haven't had that."

The biggest onus seems to be on Summers, the team's third-leading scorer who nevertheless endured a streak of eight consecutive games this season in which he failed to reach double figures in points. That wasn't a problem in last year's NCAA tournament, when Summers averaged 18.8 points in five games.

"Summers is very capable of going crazy," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said, "and we have to make sure he doesn't."

Howland said he expected Malcolm Lee, the Bruins' designated defensive stopper, to guard Lucas at least some of the time, particularly when Michigan State plays Keith Appling at point guard and moves Lucas to shooting guard.

But UCLA has no answer for the Spartans' postseason experience. Lucas and forward Delvon Roe started on both of Michigan State's most recent Final Four teams, and Green and Summers were key contributors. By comparison, Lee and reserve guard Jerime Anderson are the only Bruins to have appeared in the NCAA tournament, and they played a combined 32 minutes two years ago.

Even though they have piled up more losses than they expected, the Spartans retain high hopes for the time of year when they have made a habit of winning.

"We still have our same mind-set," Green said. "We're going to win a weekend. We win a weekend and things start to change."

Silver lining?

UCLA's loss to Oregon in a Pacific 10 Conference tournament quarterfinal provided additional rest for Lee, who is playing with torn cartilage in his left knee.

"It's helping a lot, all these extra days off," Lee said. "It's starting to feel a lot better and I'm just getting used to playing and walking on it with the different feeling in my knee."

Etc.

Sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt has tested positive for strep throat but continues to practice and is expected to play against the Spartans, Howland said. … Since UCLA is in the midst of finals week, several players will take proctored exams in a conference room at the team hotel in Tampa. "You're a college student and this is what you live for," junior guard Lazeric Jones said. "We'll do well in finals and then when it's time to play on the court we'll buckle down and do it." … The Bruins are scheduled to depart by charter flight at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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