|Hard not to be impressed and reassured by MSU after watching it slug out a W against Kansas Tuesday. (US Presswire)|
"We had two-a-days on Sunday," Tom Izzo said. "And then we went hard on Monday."
"It was kinda bad," acknowledged Michigan State senior Derrick Nix, and it certainly sounds that way. But the "kinda bad" approach worked for Izzo because his 21st-ranked Spartans responded. They overcame a seven-point deficit in Tuesday night's second half and upset No. 7 Kansas 67-64 in the opening game of the Champions Classic here at the Georgia Dome.
"The good news is we got a little bit of our pride and character back after not playing as well over there," Izzo said. "The trip wasn't easy. But it shows me a lot of character on these guys' part. ... For them to bounce back after that trip ... and play with the passion and the energy they played with, I thought they did a heckuva job."
But there was a reason to wonder whether they would if only because last season's team didn't. You might remember the Spartans opened 2011 on an aircraft carrier in San Diego on a Friday night before playing in the Champions Classic in New York on the following Tuesday. They lost to North Carolina first, then backed it with a loss to Duke to drop to 0-2, at which point Izzo openly wondered why on earth he agreed to put his team through such a difficult opening five days in terms of travel and competition.
And then guess what he did?
He agreed to do it all over again!
"I'm not going to lie to you ... I think about it sometimes like, 'Why do I put myself through this torture?'" Izzo said. "But I also look at it as, you know, when a coach is telling you what to do and you win by 20 because you played somebody that you should've beaten by 30 it doesn't hit home the same as when you lose a game like we lost. ... I think the point hits home [more when you lose], and I'd rather the point hit home early so that we can build on it."
Translation: Losing early sucks. But it can help.
It's a philosophy Izzo embraces -- even if it drives him crazy every now and again -- because he's confident and secure, and because he trusts everything will work itself out in time ... especially if players mature from one lesson to the next. Which brings me to Gary Harris.
"I was a lot more settled down tonight," said Harris, the heralded freshman guard who backed his 4-of-13 performance from the field in that loss to UConn with a 7-of-12 performance from the field in this win over Kansas. "I didn't have those first-game jitters."
And he didn't look like a freshman at all.
But Kansas' Ben McLemore kinda did. And his teammate, Perry Ellis, really did.
"Perry is going to be a good player, but everything is a finesse deal [for him] right now," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "It's not his fault. It's just a finesse deal. And Michigan State's not the best team to be finesse against."
No, Michigan State is not.
So Kansas will return to Lawrence with a 1-1 record.
And Michigan State will return to East Lansing with a 1-1 record, too.
The Spartans don't play again until Sunday, meaning they can rest a little now. And they aren't scheduled to play another currently ranked team until they meet Ohio State on January 19, meaning a lengthy winning streak is probably on deck. Michigan State turned last season's 0-2 start into a 15-2 record last season, and nobody will be surprised if this 1-1 record moves to 17-1 over the next couple of months. But what would it mean without this win over Kansas? Or, more specifically, what would it mean without this game against Kansas? Because that's really the point. And that's why Izzo played it. Because he trusted that he'd learn something about his team, win or lose.
The win just makes the lesson a little easier to digest.
"I feel good," Izzo said before exiting the Georgia Dome. "I really feel pretty good."