December 11, 2011
Tom Izzo annually schedules aggressively during the non-conference season. By his team taking its lumps early against top competition and in tough environments, the wealth of lessons learned can be drawn from down the road by his battle-tested teams.
This year's group is responding to the early adversity better than almost any he's had, continuing its impressive run under the radar with a 74-67 upset of Gonzaga in Spokane on Saturday night.
Since stumbling out of the gates with those two gritty setbacks, Saturday's win was the Spartans' eighth in a row, and arguably their most impressive of the bunch.
The aspect of the win that stood out the most was the overall performance — and dominance — from senior forward Draymond Green.
Over the last three years, the 6-foot-7 Green has been a stellar example of a guy who transformed from a role player and young project into a productive rock leading a young team.
On Saturday night, he made scoring a career-high 34 points look easy, never forcing the issue as he hit 11 of 13 shot attempts and four of five from 3-point range in 33 minutes.
Quietly, he's been one of the finest players in the nation to this point, averaging 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Izzo commended Green after Saturday's game for how hard he worked on his outside shot in the offseason, but his improved production has only told half of the story.
Following a 20-point win over Central Connecticut State on Wednesday night in East Lansing, Green was far from satisfied. The Blue Devils held early double-digit leads and, on the night, claimed 23 offensive rebounds, but talent ultimately won out for Sparty.
The result was an impromptu players-only meeting run by Green that kept the media waiting outside of the team's locker room for longer than usual.
"We just had a few things to nip in the bud right now," Green said afterwards. "Lack of effort is something we won't do. It won't happen to this team. If you just let things like that go, guys get used to that, and that's what they become. We will not let this team become that."
Green was the ideal guy to give the speech not only because he's the team's unquestioned senior leader, but because effort and hard work are what got him to this point in his career. His presence has clearly rubbed off on the cast of underclassmen and newcomers around him that is rapidly improving and looking more and more like a legitimate Top-25 team.
The immediate result was an impressive, signature non-conference win in a hostile environment that saw Michigan State dominate for the better part of the evening.
Izzo's club now returns home for three non-conference games it should handle with ease before opening Big Ten play on Dec. 28 at home against surging Indiana.
And not only is Michigan State starting to look like Michigan State again, but Green is continuing to set himself apart as one of college basketball's most valuable individuals.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene