EAST LANSING - After a nearly-disastrous game at Minnesota, Tom Izzo wanted to sharpen up the brass tacks a little bit during Friday's practice. Coach called for The War Drill.
The grab, claw, scratch, hold, mug, no-rules rebounding drill is rarely used the day before a game, especially this late in the season when coaches customarily are trying to save players' legs. But Izzo wanted to force some contact, after watching the Spartans get out-rebounded 33-27 during a fidgety 66-61 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday in Minneapolis.
"I just thought we needed to get our mentality back a little bit," Izzo said.
The Spartans hadn't staged the War Drill in more than a week, due to a heavy mid-to-late February schedule and the need to preserve fuel and leg freshness.
Even Draymond Green, who has sat out some War Drills in recent weeks due to an iffy knee, participated in the proceedings.
"Yeah, I was in it," Green said.
Did Green dominate?
"I got a few," he said.
Michigan State ranks No. 3 in the country in rebounding margin at +9.5. That's the third-best mark of the Izzo era at Michigan State.
Michigan State is the only team in the country that ranks in the top five nationally in rebounding margin and field goal percentage defense.
Trice Still Out
Freshman guard Travis Trice is still out with complications due to an ankle injury.
"He definitely will not play Saturday," Izzo said. "I think he is doubtful for Tuesday."
Trice has not played since injuring his ankle during Michigan State's victory at Ohio State on Feb. 11.
"There might be a little tear in there of the ligament, and it is taking it longer for it to heal," Izzo said.
Freshman Brandan Kearney is serving as the back-up point guard in an emergency role while Trice is out.
Kearney had primarily played as a reserve wing guard through the first 25 games of the season, with only occasional minutes at point guard. Izzo's decision to give Kearney a handful of repetitions at point guard during various checkpoints of the season, albeit in a limited fashion, may have seemed strange at the time, but those brief moments of orientation are paying off now as the Spartans try to close out a run at the Big Ten title.
Kearney played a career-high 19 minutes in the Feb. 16 victory over Wisconsin, which was the first game after Trice's injury.
Kearney then struggled at times during MSU's victory at Purdue on Sunday. He had the ball stolen from him on one occasion while trying to deliver an entry pass from the wing.
Also he and Alex Gauna fouled up a switch assignment on a side ball screen late in the first half. In the second half, Kearney lost contact with his man while trying to fight through a stagger screen set for Anthony Jackson, leading to a runner down the lane for Jackson.
"I think he forgot he is a defensive player who will have to wait to become an offensive player in the summer," Izzo quipped, after practice on Friday. "I think he got a little casual with it."
Kearney was excellent on defense on Wednesday at Minnesota. Izzo went with Kearney twice in the late stages on a defense-for-offense substitution, inserting Kearney in place of Austin Thornton.
Kearney's defense forced two Gopher turnovers in the final two minutes.
"He went in and did a great job, especially in the second half defensively," Izzo said.
Izzo has strong confidence in Kearney's on-ball defense at all three positions. But the long-legged Kearney needs to sharpen up his footwork and steps as an off-ball defender when chasing a shooter through a tight maze of screens.
Aside from Kearney, there are a few other options at point.
"Brandon Wood can play a little bit, especially against zone," Izzo said. "I can go about it like last year and play DayDay some against teams that don't pressure - but now that they know our situation they might pressure."
With Trice out, Appling has logged more minutes while managing to avoid foul trouble. He played 36 minutes at Minnesota and 35 at Purdue. After a messy 0-assist, 7-turnover floor game at Ohio State, Appling has produced 10 assists with only one turnover in the past two games combined.
Izzo says it's not fair to demand more from his sophomore point guard, but he is going to anyway.
"We want to push the ball in transition more, but it is hard to demand that without a true back-up," Izzo said. "You start to play a guy 39 minutes, and push it on the break and ask him to defend the best player, you have to be careful in everything that you ask for."
Appling continues to struggle from long range, with his 3-point percentage down to .244 one season after leading the team with .411 accuracy from long range.
Appling has made only 2 of his last 23 3-pointers. Izzo has advised Appling to focus more on his medium range game and attempt to work out of his long-range slump by taking more shots from a step or two closer to the rim, when possible. Appling will gun the open three when left alone or when a shot clock situation necessitates it, as was the case twice against the Gophers. But Appling missed both of those open opportunities at Minnesota.
"He didn't shoot well early and he made some defensive mistakes that I had never seen him make and he took some crap for it, but he bounced back and made good decisions down the stretch and hit big free throws," Izzo said. "That impressed me."
Appling's stat line ended up looking nice and tidy at Minnesota with 13 points (3-of-8 shooting, and 7-of-8 from the foul line) to go with 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and no turnovers.
Michigan State needs two wins to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season title. The Spartans will try to close the magic number to one with a victory tonight against Nebraska (8 p.m., BTN).
The Huskers are 12-14 overall and 4-11 in the Big Ten.
No. 6-ranked Michigan State is 23-5 and 12-3.
"My talk tonight to the team will be: You've got to win this game to have a chance to play for a championship," Izzo said. "And if we win that, then it will be, 'Win and we will have a chance to win it outright.' That's how I'm going to approach it."
Izzo has six regular season Big Ten titles, taking the trophy in 1998, '99, 2000, 2001, 2009 and 2010. MSU has advanced to the Final Four in five of those six years.
Green has been a part of two of those teams, as a freshman in '09 and a sophomore in '10. Green says the push for the title will be and has been discussed.
"You get down to the last three games, you don't want to not talk about it," he said. "You have to raise up your intensity level."
"To do what we want to do, and accomplish what we want to accomplish, we have to focus in on this and get the win," Wood said.
"The Big Ten, it's very important," Green said of the quest for the regular season championship. "It's just another way to hang another banner. We are trying to raise as many banners as we can.
"We have to come out and play with energy. If we play with energy, the defense and everything else will take care of itself."
MSU took its NCAA-mandated weekly day off on Thursday, causing the Spartans to go into Saturday's game under the rare circumstances of a one-day prep.
"Having a one-day prep is not good, but we'll make it like it's the NCAA Tournament, and go Saturday with a lot more chalk talk," Izzo said.
Izzo said the day off allowed the Spartans to get some much-needed rest. He said the team did not appear tired on Friday. The Spartans shot well in practice.
Senior Day Role For Roe?
Izzo looked into the possibility of suiting up former Spartan Delvon Roe for a brief cameo, on the bench at least, during Senior Day proceedings on March 4. But Izzo said Roe's professional earnings as an actor somehow cost him his amateur status.
"We can't suit him up," Izzo said. "I'm sure I would have done it, out of appreciate for the kid."
Roe, a three-year starter, retired prior to the 2011-12 season due to recurring knee problems.
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