EAST LANSING - [DB]Tom Izzo[/db] spent Sunday night and Monday morning analyzing his Spartans heading into the biggest pre-conference game of the season, Wednesday's game at No. 1-ranked Duke.
Izzo is most bothered by Michigan State's high turnover numbers, even more so than the Spartans' mediocre rebounding figures.
"For a squad that has been Rebound University, I would still rather turn it over less than rebound it better, if you gave me one of the two," Izzo said during Monday's weekly press conference.
Izzo believes taking care of the basketball is the first order of business for the Spartans as they prepare for Duke's pressure man-to-man defense, which has been ratcheted up a level over last year's National Championship team with the arrival of super-quick freshman point guard Kyrie Irving.
"The one big key against Duke is not turning the ball over," Izzo said. "The other is handling ball screens, and defending 3-point shots."
MSU's ballscreen defense got a little bit better at halftime against Washington, as the Spartans battled back from a double-digit deficit to beat last year's Pac-10 champions 76-71 in the third place game of the Maui Invitational, last Wednesday. But it will need to get even better against Duke, with the way Irving can penetrate off of ball screens and kick out to good shooters at the two, three and four.
"They (Duke) are a lot better team than they were last year when they won the championship," Izzo said. "I said last year I was amazed at the job they did. Kyrie Irving has made them better. He is just a truer point guard with jet speed quickness. They still have some guys that are shooting the ball, like Seth Curry off the bench and now I think the Plumlees have really improved. Singler is Singler. He (Kyle Singler) is going to be great. Nolan Smith has improved. And Kyrie Irving just makes them a different type of better team with their penetration and kickouts, with their pressure defense. He is so athletic that he can get it from one end of the court to the other like some of those great North Carolina guards did.
"Are we ready for it? No. Probably not ready for it by the way we have played, but to keep in perspective we played some really good teams in Maui and didn't play great in two of the three games and we won two of them and could have won all three.
"We are better than I give us credit for, and I don't think we are playing with the sense of urgency or the guard play that we need."
Those are areas of emphasis for this week's practice.
No. 6-ranked Michigan State committed 17 turnovers during Sunday's sloppy victory over Tennessee Tech. Korie Lucious had a team-high four turnovers int he game, and five other Spartans had two turnovers.
The Spartans turned the ball over 20 times against Washington. MSU had seven players with at least two turnovers against the Huskies.
"I'm trying to evaluate where we are right now," Izzo said. "I'm trying to figure out what's reality and what's excuses, but we just haven't had much practice time."
Izzo landed on the latter as the main explanation for MSU's November sloppiness.
"We went to the island (Hawaii) and we practiced only one day once those games started," Izzo said. "We got back and Kalin and Korie didn't practice, Kalin for two days and Korie for one. I just think that's part of the reason we are turning the ball over. We have had like six practices in the last two and a half weeks.
"I always forget that, what going on the road means for practice time. That's one thing I have to do a better job of because I think it has hurt us in the past and it is hurting us a little bit (now)."
Lack of practice time this fall has added to MSU's off-season injury problems, in terms of building on-court chemistry and rapport.
"This team has not played the way we need to play, which is not totally unexpected considering our summer," Izzo said.
Lucas missed the entire spring, summer and most of September while undergoing rehabilitation following late-March surgery on his Achilles tendon. Various other Spartans missed anywhere from three weeks to two months during the off-season.
"It is very delicate to talk about things and figure out when to make excuses and when to chastise your team or your coach," Izzo said. "If you watch Duke play on tape, they look like they have played together for a long time, because they did. They played together all summer, all fall. We had nobody playing together this summer. We couldn't even play 4-on-4 teams and I think that has hurt us. I don't think people feel comfortable where everybody is, and we are moving people around in addition to that.
"But there aren't good excuses for why good guards are turning the ball over at will. We need good practice time. Traveling like we did is going to limit it, and it's going to be that way for another week."
MSU had 14 of its 20 turnovers in the Washington game in the first half. Turnovers have been more of a problem for the Spartans in the first half than in the second, for some reason.
"It's not a skill thing. It's more a mental thing," Izzo said. "I think our players had a little bit of being travel-weary and a little bit of not respecting their opponent (Tennessee Tech), which bothers me a lot. I think skill-wise, those guys that are turning it over shouldn't be turning it over. That's what we are going to try to improve on.
"It's just getting better by practicing together. Practicing together has been more than a hassle.
"If we cut down (the turnovers), our field goal percentage defense will get better and we will cleaner rebounds and guys will get out on the break and we'll get our break going a little bit."
"It's a good excuse but I think it is reality," Izzo said. "I think we deserve some negative things said on why we are turning it over the way we are, because I don't think there have been defensive pressure turnovers. I think they have been more inept on our part.
Duke will make sure to test Michigan State in the halfcourt, with defensive pressure. The turnover-for-touchdown problem, as Izzo likes to phrase it, was a major reason for the loss to Connecticut. At Duke, the same problem would lead to a blowout.
"One of the reasons I schedule tough games is if you don't have respect for your opponent or you don't play at the top of your game, you are going to get smacked, and I don't mean beat, I mean beat-beat."
Izzo knows his team won't have any problem having the proper respect for Duke. But he said the Spartans didn't have proper respect for Tennessee Tech, which was part of the problem with Sunday's sloppiness.
Izzo said on Monday one of the things he admires about Duke's program is the Blue Devils' penchant for playing hard against all opponents in all circumstances. He says that remains one of the differences between his program and Duke's.
"I think they have done maybe the best job in the whole country of night-in and night-out playing to a certain level," Izzo said. "I don't give us credit for that because I don't think we have done that at all. I think that's the next mountain for us to climb.
"They have won 80-some straight home nonconference games. That means there is not many letdowns, if any. If you look at how many times they have been upset, when they were the higher-ranked team, there are just not many. We have done a decent job of that but they have done an incredible job. When I'm watching them playing Miami of Ohio and they are 25 up, they are playing just as hard as if they are playing Kansas State or North Carolina. Right now, that's the biggest difference, but that's a big difference.
"So we are going to try to look at this game as a game where we can try to get some of our swagger back but at the same time it is going to be up to the guards to take better care of the ball, and Draymond Green too, because he has had some turnovers."
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