AN OPPOSING VIEW
When it comes to Michigan State basketball — and Spartan athletics, period — you’re not going to find many guys who can tell you more about it than Joe Rexrode.
Rexrode works for the Detroit Free Press and has been covering Michigan State football and men’s basketball on a daily basis since 2003, including his time at the Lansing State Journal (2000-2012). He even covered the Spartans some in college.
Rexrode was getting ready to leave Lansing and fly to Charlotte when I caught up with him through Twitter and asked him if he’d mind sharing his knowledge of the Spartans as our guest for “An Opposing View.” He didn’t know any better and I promised to buy him a beer in Charlotte, so he agreed to do it.
Be sure to read Joe’s stuff on the Detroit Free Press website and you can follow him like I do on Twitter, @joerexrode.
Q: Where would you put this season of basketball for Michigan State? Obviously the Spartans are not as talented as they have been during some of those Final Four runs, but are there tangible reasons that they’ve lost more than normal this season? And is there a Final Four run in this bunch?
Rexrode: Well, it was looking like the season that would break Tom Izzo’s NCAA tournament streak (now at 18 seasons) for a while, so it’s definitely a season saved by much better basketball in the past month. This was always going to be a rebuilding season with Gary Harris, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling departing from last year’s team and none of Izzo’s prime targets for the class of 2015 (Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, mainly) choosing his program. But then add in a broken foot for his best freshman, Javon Bess, just before the start of the season – he played a bit midway through the season and was shut down again – and a few other issues and you have trouble. The amazing thing is, were this team simply decent at the foul line it would probably have three or four more wins. So in some ways, it has been better than anticipated. Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine have raised their games dramatically. A Final Four run? I don’t see that.”
Q: What’s it like to work with Izzo? Is he “media friendly?” He seems so intense from afar and does not appear to be overly “fun-loving.”
Rexrode: It’s always interesting to me to see how Izzo is perceived around the country. Izzo is actually a very funny and gregarious guy – except when he’s coaching in a game or coaching in a practice. At those times, he turns into Sean Penn on two hours of sleep, surrounded by paparazzi (for readers who don’t get that ‘80s reference, use your Internet). It’s a full-blown storm of intensity and rage when it’s time to compete. And yes, his approach to media is very old-school and helpful. He’s easily accessible by phone, he lets us watch practice often (usually twice a week), and he has long press conferences that often include round-table discussions. That said, he can be sensitive and can get very upset at things said and written. We’ve gone a few (verbal) rounds over the years, and I’m sure that’s true of most who have covered him for any length of time. But in terms of covering a beat and being allowed to see what’s really going on inside the walls, while getting frank, interesting comments from a coach? I don’t see how it could get much better than this.
Q: What’s the perception of the team the Spartans have drawn in the first round this year? I’m sure Georgia has the team’s respect but I’m assuming the fan base probably views it differently.
Rexrode: SEC basketball almost feels like Big Ten football to me. I think it’s typically disrespected by fans of other leagues around the country, even though it’s typically not as awful as it’s perceived. In most years, MSU fans would probably shrug off a matchup against Georgia. But this year, MSU fans know that just about anyone can beat their team on a bad day. Also, a lot of people watched that Georgia-Kentucky game a few weeks ago, and the Bulldogs were awfully impressive before the last couple minutes. So I don’t think too many people are heavily scouting the Virginia matchup just yet.
Q: What’s the thoughts on that end about Georgia’s Yante Maten being from Pontiac, having a mother who graduated from MSU but choosing UGA over the Spartans and Indiana, apparently?
Rexrode: Well, MSU came extremely late with an offer, but people still assumed it would be a slam dunk when he finally got one. Based on his comments this week, it’s not like he has a big issue with MSU or anything, but a lot of kids don’t like to be slow played. Fans had kind of forgotten about Maten before this week. It was such a brief recruitment and there’s a McDonald’s All-America big man coming next fall and another one who might join him. But it looks like he’s really going to be good for Georgia.
Q: When you look at this game from an analytical standpoint, what’s your thoughts on key matchups and where State might have some advantages or be at a disadvantage?
Rexrode: Well, Branden Dawson is a tough matchup for most teams because he runs like a wing but is a physical force around the basket. Is it straight-up Dawson vs. Thornton? That’s what I would guess. If so, can MSU’s centers (Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling) get things done in the post vs. Djurisic? And can they stop him from getting into the lane and hitting threes? On the perimeter, Georgia wants size and quickness on Valentine, who shoots at a high level and is one of the best passers you’ll see anywhere. I want to know who MSU is going to use on Gaines (and whether he’s healthy), and although freshman Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn is just 5-9, I could see MSU using him on Charles Mann to keep him out of the lane. Nairn’s defense on opposing point guards has been a big part of the surge in the past month.
REXRODE’S PREDICTION (sort of):
“I’m really struggling with this one. It’s a coin flip in my mind. A big, athletic team that checks and rebounds is not an ideal matchup for the Spartans. They’d rather see a small, quick team that likes to play up-tempo basketball. But Izzo’s teams can always adjust to different kinds of opponents and games, and I see this being one of those low 60s grinders. Both teams have some defensive matchup issues. Can I pick a tie?”
UPDATE: Rexrode offered an actual outcome prediction in the Detroit Free Press today. You can guess who he picked and why or read it HERE.