DETROIT – Earlier this season, when Michigan State was struggling to find consistency, growing pains were to blame.
Because of injuries, coach Tom Izzo was forced to dole out substantial minutes to freshmen, and we're not talking about youngsters touted as one-and-dones.
Players were pushed to pick up lessons not just in practice but during games. Those trials by fire are now paying dividends.
As MSU readies for Saturday's Final Four showdown against Connecticut, perhaps no first-year Spartan better embodies a mastery of the learning curve than Draymond Green.
The 6-foot-6, 234-pound banger from Saginaw, Mich., has made a huge impact off the bench during the NCAA tournament. He has utilized what Izzo calls an inordinately high basketball IQ to make up for his lack of experience and average athleticism.
While other kids were watching cartoons, Green was glued to hoops TV. NBA games, women's games, whatever. Green went to school.
"I'd almost say his intelligence outdoes his skill level right now," Izzo said of Green. "He just kind of knows where to be at the right time. He knows where to be on the rebound. Defensively he might not be the quickest guy, but he's the best position guy. He has a lot longer arms than his height, so he is a good rebounder because he's got some toughness.
"He's got that nose for the ball, that linebacker mentality. He goes after it pretty good."
With MSU junior forward Raymar Morgan sidelined due to a succession of respiratory illnesses, Green's playing time grew. Meanwhile, his waistline has slimmed. He's dropped nearly 40 pounds since his senior year of high school, when he led Saginaw High to its second consecutive state title. Izzo originally planned to redshirt Green when his weight ballooned over 270 pounds. Green said he learned not to eat fatty foods and upped his cardio. Izzo took care of the rest.
"Conditioning is not an issue if you are going to play in this program," Green said with a smile.
Green's progression as a player has skyrocketed this March during the Spartans' run to the national semifinals. He struck for a career-best 16 points in a first-round win over Robert Morris. His seven points and nine rebounds helped fuel a tough victory over USC in Round 2. His biggest effort came in MSU's upset of Louisville in the Midwest Region final. Green had 10 rebounds and six points to help bring the Spartans back home to Detroit.
Green, originally recruited to Kentucky by Tubby Smith, said the experience and success he has gained will help him going forward. Still, the 19-year-old shows the savyy to know that the next game is the only game that matters in the lose-and-go-home tournament.
"I can't try to feed off those [past performances]," Green said. "I just have to do whatever I can in the game ahead to help my team out. It's always going to be something different that I'm needed to do because of the different styles of teams we face."
Green will be called upon to help check UConn senior forward Jeff Adrien. Adrien, a physical force, is the Huskies' second-leading scorer (13.7 points per game) and rebounder (10 per game). The Huskies also feature junior forward Stanley Robinson and junior center Hasheem Thabeet. Their bruising bigs will be the toughest test MSU has faced all year.
"We don't look at it as added pressure," Green said. "We just have to continue doing what we've been doing to get here.
"We just have to stick to whatever game plan coach gives us and execute. If we execute, we'll come out with a victory."
Green isn't the only Spartans freshman to make a significant contribution this season. Delvon Roe was a major factor in the second half of the Big Ten season as MSU ran to the conference crown. Korie Lucious has helped sophomore Kalin Lucas handle the ball and made some big shots.
With Morgan still struggling to regain his health – his latest malady a broken nose – and his confidence, Green can again be the guy to get MSU over the top. In addition to his toughness, Izzo lauds Green's soft hands and deft passing touch. The coach might have mentioned his maturity as well.
"[The freshmen] have played a much bigger role helping get this team to this point, but we just have to play within the system and learn to wait our turn and whenever our number is called be ready to play," Green said.
A very grown-up approach, especially considering the almost Beatles-like following the Spartans have brought to Detroit. More than 25,000 fans flocked to a practice session at Ford Field on Friday.
"When we were looking around out there, some of us were saying that it looked like there were more people out there than when we played North Carolina earlier this year [a 98-63 MSU loss at Ford Field in December]," Green said. "It's a great experience, we just have to make sure we stay focused. It's cool to know you are the hometown favorite and to have that support."
Support for the Spartans from the fans. Support on the court from the freshmen, especially Green.
Could be the formula for another MSU upset.
- Tom Izzo