Saturday, December 24, 2011

John Jett

A tale of two teams. A slight alteration of Charles Dickens' famous novel sufficiently describes the difference between this season's Michigan State Spartans and that of last seasons. After back-to-back Big Ten championships and Final Four runs, the 2010-2011 Spartans finished the Big Ten 9-9, tied for 4th, and desperately searching for a win to make it to it's 14th straight NCAA tournament, which they found over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, before losing in the first round to UCLA, ending one of the most disappointing basketball seasons in recent school memory. That does not appear to be the case with the 2011-2012 Michigan State basketball team.

After losing their first two games to then #1 North Carolina and #6 Duke, the Spartans have won their last eleven games, including an impressive win at #22 Gonzaga, who have a 92-7 record on their home court, during which senior forward Draymond Green scored a career high 34 points. The Spartans are ranked 6th nationally in rebounding, 12th in assists, 44th in points per game, and 51st in field goal percentage. After starting the season unranked, the Spartans are currently #20 in the country.

So what's the difference between the '10-'11 Spartans team and the '11-'12 one? There were the fundamental problems, of course. A typical MSU basketball team is defense-oriented with a strong post presence, which didn't happen. They're aggressive in rebounding and in loose balls, but that effort wasn't there either. But the fundamental problems stemmed from some larger issues. The first problem with last season's team began before they even set foot on the court: off-court distractions. The summer after their second straight Final Four run, Tom Izzo was heavily pursued by the Cleveland Cavaliers after head coach Mike Brown was fired. The weeklong drama included numerous visits to Cleveland and, finally, a late-night press conference announcing his refusal. The situation, though, planted some seeds of discomfort amongst the team in early July. The drama continued rolling in that summer when would-be senior Chris Allen was dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons and transferred to Iowa State. He would be joined in February by dismissed junior Korie Lucious. Meanwhile, senior captain and point guard Kalin Lucas, after deciding to return for his senior season, continued to struggle and recover from a torn achilles tendon suffered during the Final Four run, junior Delvon Roe fought through chronic knee pain, and redshirted freshman Russell Byrd had yet another foot surgery. As the Spartans were anything but stable off-the-court, they struggled to find stability on the court as well. 

Another major problem that factored into the team's struggles was the lack of leadership. Tom Izzo takes pride in having a player-coached team and, under Izzo, the Spartans have had many great leaders: Antonio Smith, Mateen Cleaves, Alan Anderson, Drew Neitzel, Travis Walton. Generally, team leadership (for any team) comes from people who are natural born leaders, talented, and experienced. Last year, the Spartans star senior, point guard Kalin Lucas, was not a leader. Izzo wanted him to be, but it wasn't in his personality to lead. Senior Durrell Summers also didn't have the gumption to lead nor did he have the kind of playing season that would inspire his teammates. The person who did have the natural ability to lead was junior Draymond Green. So last year's team faced another dilemma: to follow the leadership of a senior point guard who didn't want/know how to lead, or to follow the guy who wanted to lead, but was forced to take a backseat to the seniors. Ultimately, no decision was made.

Last year's team wasn't a team. Players, seniors in particular, focused on playing for the names on the back of their jerseys rather than the name on the front. There was no chemistry, too many distractions, and a sense of entitlement coming into the season, ranked #2 in the country after back-to-back Final Four runs. It's not secret that I'm a huge Spartan fan. My father is a bigger Spartan fan. We turned the games off. We couldn't watch. 

That's not the case with this year's team. No dismissals. No NBA flirtations. No injured players. The players aren't selfish (17.5 apg, 12th nationally). Draymond Green is the undisputed leader of the team. They hustle, they rebound, they play in the post. They started the season under the radar and have had to prove themselves to get ranked. The difference between the two Spartans' teams shows how important leadership, effort, and team chemistry is to the game. The skill level of teams isn't dependent on the amount of talent in each individual player; it's what happens when they all play together.

This entry is in honor of John Jett, #19 punter on the 1999 Detroit Lions football team. He played college football at East Carolina University, spent 1993-1996 with the Dallas Cowboys, winning two Superbowls, and was with the Lions from 1997-2003. This was the Lions last team to make the playoffs. Until tonight. With their 38-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, the Lions have clinched their first playoff berth in 13 years.

The Sports Nerd

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