COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tom Izzo was standing by the Michigan State team bus at the Schottenstein Center, downplaying another brilliant game plan in a career full of them.
"It wasn't anything Einstonian," he said with a shrug.
Yeah, well, Einstein – or Einstone, in the Izzo nomenclature – couldn't defend the pick-and-roll. So it's all relative. Ahem.
Fact is, Izzo approaches genius level when it comes to devising a plan for a big game. It has helped carry him to one national title and six Final Four appearances. The latest evidence is Michigan State's surprisingly authoritative 58-48 victory over Ohio State on Saturday night.
The Buckeyes had won 39 in a row in this building and were facing a Spartans team that was overachieving wildly to be second in the Big Ten coming into this game. Now that Spartans team is tied for first, at 20-5 overall and 9-3 in the league, and with plenty of room to keep improving.
How did they do it? Let's go to the Einstein Playbook and catalog the ways.
That was the Einstein theory embodied by the equation, E=MC2. Put into practice on the basketball court Saturday, that meant creating a defensive energy that was equivalent to the mass of Ohio State All-American Jared Sullinger.
The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Sullinger is a leading national Player of the Year candidate – or was until he produced 10 turnovers and 10 missed shots against the Spartans. Sullinger is good enough that he still had 17 points and 16 rebounds, but the number of empty possessions helped kill the Buckeyes' chances in this game.
Izzo knew Sullinger demanded extra attention in the post, but didn't want to double-team him. He knew Sullinger was an adept passer who could kick the ball out to open shooters for 3-pointers. So the plan was to use the length of 6-10 Adreian Payne and the girth of 270-pound Derrick Nix to body Sullinger, then send the Spartans' guards in like hyenas to swipe at the ball every time Sullinger brought it down low – which was often. Credit that plan to good film work by Michigan State's staff.
"He definitely brings the ball down a lot," Nix said. "And we used that to our advantage."
Said Sullinger: "They dig [for the ball with their guards], but they don't dig like they did today. We have to give them credit; they had a great game plan and stuck to their system."
Sullinger is adept at drawing fouls in the post and accustomed to getting them. When the whistles didn't come as often as he desired Saturday, it showed in his body language and facial expression.
"He's a pretty good player, but we did everything we could to get in his head and frustrate him," Nix said.
Told that Sullinger had 10 turnovers, Nix said, "Oh, wow. What was he from the field?"
Five out of 15, Derrick.
"Damn. Well, I guess we did frustrate him."
On a frustrating night, Sullinger needed help from his teammates but got little. Second-leading scorer William Buford was a brutal 2-of-12 and scored four points. Third-leading scorer Deshaun Thomas was just as bad, also going 2-of-12.
Meanwhile, Izzo also demanded that his big men sprint from defense to offense on every possession, whether there was a fast break or not, simply to fatigue Ohio State's post players. That strategy was employed to take advantage of Buckeyes coach Thad Matta's annual refusal to play many people – seven Saturday, with Sullinger and Aaron Craft going 40 minutes, Buford 36 and Thomas 32. Tired legs are a reasonable explanation for Ohio State's horrific 22 percent shooting in the second half, including 0-of-9 from 3-point range.
Theory of Greenian Motion.
What was Brownian Motion for Einstein changes hues for Izzo and is personified by senior Draymond Green. He is the unquestioned leader of this Michigan State team and the point forward who makes Michigan State's offense go.
Green, who is Sullinger's only realistic competition for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, had a strong first half – nine points, seven rebounds, two assists. Then he struggled mightily in the second half, with just three points, two rebounds and three turnovers.
But the impressive thing about Michigan State is that it absorbed that flat half from Green – plus seven turnovers by dribble-happy guard Keith Appling – and won anyway. Payne had a career-high 15 points playing against former AAU teammate Sullinger, and there were enough other contributors to cobble together 58 points.
That was more than enough because the Spartans did what Izzo teams do: win the backboard battle and guard with monastic zeal. Izzo was particularly tickled by the seven rebounds from 6-2 guard Brandon Wood and the defensive effort from McDonald's All-American Branden Dawson.
"For a long time, Dawson couldn't have guarded this thing," Izzo said, slapping his hand against a Coke machine in the Schottenstein Center hallway. "It would have gone baseline on him twice. He's getting better."
That's what Izzo players – and teams – do.
Unified Field Theory.
Izzo is a fanatical team-builder, big on locker-room unity. A big part of that is having players who can take charge of said locker room. If he has that, Izzo will listen to his leaders.
That leader is Green, and Green told his coach this week that the Spartans were a tired team. "I just told him the most important thing [against Ohio State] was going to be energy," Green said.
This was the Spartans' third game of the week, after playing rival Michigan on Sunday and Penn State on Wednesday. In order to have the requisite energy Saturday, Izzo listened to Green and did something he rarely does – he ordered up a light practice for Friday. The usual ferocious rebounding drills were replaced with work on Buckeyes offensive and defensive sets and how to combat them.
"The most important thing was knowing your assignments," Green said.
The Spartans responded with a Saturday walk-through that Izzo said was the best his program has had since the day they shocked No. 1 seed Louisville in a 2009 regional final. That carried over to the game, with Michigan State leading for the final 31:22.
"You have to give them a lot of credit," Craft said. "What they hang their hat on is big pressure defense. They limited us to one shot and they shrink the floor. Our guys weren't ready for it tonight. Some of our actions are supposed to flow from side to side, and we got a little bit selfish and were just taking shots for ourselves."
Those words should be warning signals for the Buckeyes. Despite their success in winning 21 of 25 games, there are whispers that the scarlet-and-gray locker room is not quite as unified as the Spartans'. Too much discussion about touches and shot attempts and who might be going pro.
Maybe a home loss that creates a tie in the Big Ten race will refocus the Buckeyes on the task at hand and the teamwork needed to complete that task. Izzo insisted, several times, that Ohio State still is the best team in the league.
Maybe so. But there's no debate about the best coach in the league. Even if his game plan wasn't Einstonian, it had a bit of genius to it.
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