The Michigan St. Spartans remain slight two point favorites against the Oklahoma Sooners in Friday night’s sweet 16 game in Syracuse. Spartans players Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine joined Coach Tom Izzo to talk about the upcoming game in this press conference on Thursday:
Tom Izzo: Just that we’re excited to be here. It’s been a different Michigan State year. That doesn’t mean a negative. It’s just not maybe the same kind of team we’ve been. I think a little less in talent, a little less in maybe the physicality of our team, but we’ve really grown as a team, and we’ve done the ultimate. That we play as good of a team defense, meaning everyone helping each other. So, again, it’s taught me something. You never quit learning in this job. I’ve learned a lot about our team this year. I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished so far. We’ll see what happens from here. We’re playing against a very good Oklahoma team. I know Lon very well. I was in the Big Ten at one time. I have all the respect for them, and the way they play has been incredible, too. So it should be a heck of a game.
Question: To follow up on your opening statement and how different this team has been, knowing that you went after Okafor and after a couple of the big names, how much more — is there a validation or satisfaction in knowing that you were able to do this without landing those big recruits?
Tom Izzo: When’s the trade deadline up? I’d still trade. If it’s before tomorrow, I’m still doing it. I don’t know if it’s a validation. It’s just you do what you do. There’s a lot of different ways to win. I think a lot of coaches have done it different ways. One of the biggest ways is you’d better adjust to the talent you have and play somewhat within your own system because you don’t want to change everything, but make adjustments to the personnel you have. I know one thing: I wouldn’t trade anybody as far as the way these guys have handled things this year, the class in the way they’ve dealt with things, winning and losing, the frustration of the free-throw situation we went through and how they handled that, what they are as students, what they are as people. I’m cool with it all.
Question: Tom, your friendship with Mark Dantonio is well documented. I wonder specifically are there any things that you picked up from him? Habits, dealing with players, drills, anything specific?
Tom Izzo: Mark and I talk often. We have a meeting — we’ve got a neat situation where our AD, our football coach and our president, we meet every month or so, but him and I talk all the time. I think the biggest thing, when we were struggling a little bit, back a few years ago when they were struggling a little bit, he’d always ask me what we did and we’d talk about it. When you can share with somebody — because nobody in the outside world understands what’s going on, whether it be an injury or whether it be a problem. So that has helped me immensely because now they’re winning at a level where there’s more credibility, there’s more media attention, there’s more Tweeting and Twittering and all those great things. I think the one thing he told me this year that I’ve stuck to and I’ve really pushed on Branden Dawson and Travis Trice is your seniors, especially in football where you have more of them, but your juniors and seniors in basketball have to play well to have special seasons, and the better our juniors and seniors have played, the better our season has gone. I think that was the best advice he gave me. “Stay the course,” he said. “Just don’t waver when you’ve had a few of those games where you’ve struggled. Just stay the course.” The course has been pretty good to me over the past 20 years, and we’ve stayed the course.
Question: You mentioned your relationship with Lon. He was at Illinois when you were first building it. He’s been about 12 places since. Can you imagine how your life would be different if you had taken that Hawks’ job and not him?
Tom Izzo: It’s funny, you know, when I was thinking about that job, Lon was one of the guys I talked to, and I barely knew him then, but I knew he had a chance to go to the NBA when he was at Florida. We talked about it, and as soon as I said no, my phone rang, and it was him. We talked about him going there. I don’t know how different my life would be. I’d have probably been fired a week later, and who knows if I’d have found another job. But I have great respect for what he’s done. He’s done it a different way than I’ve done it. Yet when you build something everywhere you go and take over a program that maybe wasn’t in as good a shape when you got there, that means you have a hell of a system and your system works. I think Lon Kruger has proven that, no matter where he goes, he can make tweaks in what he does, but his system works.
Question: Coach, could you talk about Buddy Hield, the Sooners’ guard. And could you talk about the relationship between him and ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn.
Tom Izzo: When I was recruiting ‘Tum Tum’, he talked about Buddy. When we got him, he follows him like a brother. He knows — before we ever knew we were going to play. There’d be different games, and Oklahoma would be winning, and ‘Tum’ would come in and say something about Buddy. I think he has respect. I think he looks up to him. I don’t know if he was a role model for him since he’s a little older or what. I’ve got to make sure to let him know that’s all cool except for the two hours we’re playing them. ‘Tum’ is a lot like what I hear Buddy’s like. They appreciate everything about life, and I keep telling them, “Don’t become Americanized.” I like the way they are. There’s not a spoiled part of him, and I’m sure that Buddy’s in the same boat. What he’s done this year, the MVP of the league, the fact that he could score inside, outside. He seems to play hard every day. I just have great respect for what he’s accomplished.
Question: Coach, you said Lon has done it differently than you. Would you expand on that? Also, what similar things do you guys do coaching?
Tom Izzo: He has a tendency to exaggerate. He hasn’t been to 12 different places. Probably been about seven or eight, though. Just kidding. Just he traveled. He moved every four, five, six years. He moved, and I stayed in the same spot. That’s what I meant differently. I think coaching-wise, their defensive field-goal percentage is better than ours, but I think he’s always been a guy that’s relied on his defense. He wants to run; so do we. So it should be more of a track meet. We just came off a weekend when it was just the opposite. So it will be interesting to see how that works out for us. But I think in a lot of ways our styles are similar, what we demand and what we want. We just got there in different ways.
Question: Last time you met Oklahoma in the Sweet 16, it was ’99 in St. Louis. There was a nice little collision there at the Dome. What do you remember about Najera and Cleaves in each other? And how scared were you when you first saw that?
Tom Izzo: I had recruited Najera a little bit, so I had known of him. What I loved about him was he was tough and Cleaves was tough. Speaking of Dantonio, I think Bill Parcells and guys like that would have been envious of that hit. They really did, and it was right in front of my bench. I was worried for both guys, to be honest with you. He got it in the jaw, and Cleaves got it in the head. It was a hell of a clean hit, an accidental hit. But, wow, those two guys, I mean, it was a full — it was a hockey hit or a D-back against a receiver, something you don’t normally see in basketball. I just talked to the team about that the other day. This day and age, both guys probably would have had four concussions, and they wouldn’t have returned for a couple of years. Back then, they just both shook it off and played on. So shows you where we’ve come.
Question: Since we are in Syracuse, I want to get your reaction to Jim Boeheim last week announcing he has three years left. And if you can imagine college hoops without Jim Boeheim.
Tom Izzo: No, I can’t. I’ve been on a board with Jim. The one thing I will say is I don’t know all the circumstances. I just know this, that I’ve never seen a guy give more to the game than he’s given. When we’re on those boards — in fact, he went off and came back on. That’s like illegal. You spend 10, 11, 12 years beating your heads in and not getting very far usually, but he has such an appreciation for the game and the players. I’ve learned a lot from Jim in that respect. I’m not sure, Syracuse basketball is going to be the same and the game’s not going to be the same. Boy, we had some battles early, too. I remember coming out here and getting killed, and then Carmelo had his coming-out party, I think, at our place. He hadn’t been shooting well. He hit five threes, and we missed a couple shots at the buzzer, and that was the year they won it. I will miss that. I don’t think I’ll come back out here anyway because we didn’t do too well out here in that game. But he has done a lot for the game of basketball.
Question: Tom, as you said, this is going to be an up-and-down offensive game, but in that sort of a situation, how valuable is someone like Denzel and his ability to guard a number of people?
Tom Izzo: That’s one thing that Denzel Valentine has been. Sometimes he’s made a mistake or two here or there, but it’s partially my fault. I’m moving him all over. He can play the point. He’s played the four for us, the two, the three. He’s guarded post guys. He’s guarded point guards. Not the greatest athlete, but probably one of the more intellectual players I’ve had. So his ability to do that is enormous, and that’s one of the things that has hurt us in a couple of those games is when he gets in foul trouble. That’s why I tell him, for a coach’s son — he doesn’t have to play any harder, he plays hard, but he has to play a little smarter because we can’t lose him. Him not being on the floor is a problem. It’s a big problem.
Question: Tom, how much more special does each Sweet 16 appearance become for you? I mean, here you were courtside and you were catching up with people that you know, and you almost missed the center-court huddle before practice. How much more special, given the amount of times you’ve been here, does it feel?
Tom Izzo: The players love when I miss the center-court huddle. They have no interest in me being in it. I always believed a player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team anyway. So they probably did a good job of that. They are very special. I appreciate, from the bottom of my heart, every opportunity. Last weekend was a special weekend for us because we’ve done it with different groups. We’ve been 7 seeds. We’ve been a 9 seed. We’ve been a 1 seed. We’ve been a 1 seed and not gotten there. You realize this tournament is brutal. Every time you think you’ve got it figured out, it smacks you right in the mouth. So every time we get to play a game in this tournament, even when we got in this year, there was time when we weren’t looking real good at 13-7. Every time I’ve gotten in it, I remind our players it is a privilege, and I believe it’s a privilege. And I believe — I have a list in my desk of so many of the great coaches that never went to many of them or never went to many Elite Eights or never went to a Final Four, and I just appreciate that more than you’ll ever know.
Question: Coach, could you talk about the matchup between your defense against Oklahoma in the sense that they like the three, but TaShawn Thomas inside has been good recently. Should be a dynamic matchup.
Tom Izzo: Yeah, I think there’s been an edge there. He’s been a man. He can put the ball on the floor. He’s got great post moves. He shoots a little bit, but he can really put the ball on the floor, and that’s what I’ve been impressed with. So we’re going to have to combat that a couple of different ways. I mean, we’re not going to just go ahead up on them. You’re right, they can shoot the three. They can penetrate. They can do a little of everything. Sometimes they’re not maybe as deep, but we’re not that deep either. So I don’t know how we’re going to stop it. That’s what today and tomorrow is for, still some sleepless nights, but we’re going to try to just make them earn shots. If they make shots over us, they make shots over us. I think the big key is going to be getting back on defense and transition. They rebound well out of their transition offense; that’s not normal. We don’t run into a lot of teams that rebound as well as they do out of transition. But they still guard, too. But we want to run, too. So it should be fun to see two teams getting up and down the court, where last year it was a little bit more slugfest. But I’ve said it a million times, and one thing I think our program has done over the years is we can play smash-mouth and we can play racehorse. Sometimes we’re a little better at one or the other. This year, I’m not sure. We’ve done both. We’ve won both ways, and we’ve lost both ways. We’ll just try to do our best to get back and see if we can put some pressure on them in the same way.
Question: Guys, all of you can answer if you would like. I wouldn’t mind the seniors starting first in whatever order. I’m from Oklahoma City, so I’m curious as to, having watched this team Oklahoma on tape here the last few days, do you compare them to anybody you have played in the Big Ten this year?
TRAVIS TRICE: I don’t think so. They’re a unique team. They’ve got some really talented guards, and their bigs are kind of interchangeable with their skill set. So it’s hard to compare to anybody else.
BRANDEN DAWSON: Yeah, it’s kind of hard comparing them to a team in the Big Ten because they’re a team that likes to get out and run. Like Travis said, they have guards that can really score the ball. I think, from watching them last year, we watched them on film, they’re a much better team than last year, much better defensive team than last year. I couldn’t compare them to a team in the Big Ten.
DENZEL VALENTINE: I agree with these guys, too. They’re different in that they’re really talented as far as their guards, and their bigs are unique. They can step outside, and they’re also a low post threat. So a different team, but we’re going to be well prepared.
Question: Denzel, question for you: Michigan State is so good in March. You guys come in as a 7 seed, but I don’t think people think of you as an underdog. Why do you think the Spartans always turn it up a notch? Is it something that’s kind of expected when you join that program?
DENZEL VALENTINE: That’s a funny question because it just happens like that, I think. Our focus remains the same throughout the season. From day one, Coach Izzo is hard on us, just like it’s March. When we get to this time, our focus steps up a little bit, but nothing changes. I just think it’s unique. We just have the type of players, when the money’s on the line and the game’s on the line, we step up to the plate, and that’s what Michigan State is about.
Question: Travis, Coach was just up there saying, “We can play smash-mouth. We can play racehorse.” After having two grueling, tough, smash-mouth type games in the first two games of the Tournament, how do you think this will switch to maybe a more up-tempo style, knowing what Oklahoma can do?
TRAVIS TRICE: I think it just comes with preparation and film and really just changing our game plan. Our coaches do a great job of watching film, breaking things down, and creating a great game plan for us. But running is what we like to do anyway. That’s what Michigan State’s been built on. So we feel like it is good that we can do both. So it’s time to get back to what got us to where we’re at now. Just running.
Question: Denzel, two-part question here, one serious, one not: I was wondering, first of all, if you saw what people did to your picture on the Internet, if you had a favorite. Secondly, Coach Izzo was up here saying earlier, on a more serious note, that defensively, he’s moved you around so much that sometimes he’s worried it’s to your disadvantage. Has it been difficult for you? You have to answer the part on the Internet, too.
DENZEL VALENTINE: I had 40 text messages of that picture sent to me. Other than that, as far as defensively, I mean, I’ve guarded multiple people this year, whether it’s guards or big three men or a tiny point guard, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll just guard whoever I need to guard and whoever Coach tells me to guard. It really doesn’t matter. Yeah, whoever he tells me to guard, I’ll guard.
Question: This is for Branden: We talk a lot about Coach’s visits to the Sweet 16. I’d like to get your thoughts on how does that translate to you? How does his experience in the Sweet 16 help you guys? And also, how would you describe his personality?
BRANDEN DAWSON: Coach has been going through this thing for so long. We trust in Coach. As far as myself and Travis, we’ve been to a few Sweet 16 games, and just to see his approach towards getting us prepared and his enthusiasm towards everything, just practice, the films and the walk-throughs. A lot of guys complain about, oh, we’re watching too much film, but you know Coach is going to always have us prepared. Coach around this time just has passion for it because he knows and he expects us to be great.
Question: How would you describe his personality?
BRANDEN DAWSON: I would say his personality, it’s kind of like unexplainable. Today in practice, he was kind of getting on a few guys, but he was still in kind of a good mood. Sometimes he’s in a crappy mood or he’s mad and he’s yelling, but like I say, he really knows what it takes.
Question: For all three of the players, I guess I just wonder just how relaxed you guys are at these tournaments, and if you think that the open locker room after every game helps? Because it seems like I know we asked a lot of tough questions right out of Izzo’s press conference. Does it take a while to get used to that, or do you think it helps you in settings like this where the bright lights are on and you’re under more scrutiny?
TRAVIS TRICE: I think we’ve just got to stay focused and locked in. We’ve had a lot of distractions this year, a lot of ups and downs. I think we’re at our best when we just try to focus on the game and focus on the task at hand, whether that be media or if it’s going through a walk-through or practice. We just try to focus in and lock in, honestly.
BRANDEN DAWSON: Just what Travis said. Around this time, we just try to remain focused. We’re a No. 7 seed. So a lot of people really weren’t expecting us to be here. So we just have to stay focused and dialed in. We had a late practice the other night, and Coach said, after our walk-through that we had at 3:00, he wanted us to go out and deal with the distractions because he said he wanted us to come back and practice and just see if we were going to be locked in.
Question: Guys, what has been the key down the stretch to the success that you’ve had? What would you say would be the most important thing, the biggest key to beat Oklahoma tomorrow?
DENZEL VALENTINE: I think our defense has been our biggest key in making this run. Everybody has stepped up from Colby to Tom to Travis to B.J., everybody stepped up their defense. That’s what we kind of rely on is the defense.
BRANDEN DAWSON: I would say just our leadership, myself, Denzel, and Travis. We definitely have a different team from last year. A lot of those guys, they know what it takes to advance and keep, like, the focus and the mentality going, but they’ve never been in this position before. So whatever we do, they’re going to follow us. So if we play good and lead the team, I think they’re going to do the same thing.
Question: Branden, what does the experience, knowing that you’ve been to a number of Sweet 16s, how much does that level help keep you even keel? Because there’s no surprises really in some ways, from the attention that goes.
BRANDEN DAWSON: I think, as far as just making it and advancing, you have to enjoy it. You have to enjoy just the experience of making it into a Sweet 16. But as far as myself and Travis, we’re seniors. This is our, what, third one?
TRAVIS TRICE: Fourth.
BRANDEN DAWSON: This is our fourth one. Like I said before, we just have to remain focused. Like I said, we have to enjoy it while we’re here. Our number one goal is to win a National Championship. Last year, just watching Keith and Adreian and watching Draymond and how he led us. So we just kind of took after those guys and just really watched what they did.
Question: You lost track of how many?
BRANDEN DAWSON: Yeah, I did kind of lose track. It’s been four. So that’s a good experience.
Question: Branden, for those of us on the outside, we hear a lot about Michigan State’s toughness and culture. We’ve seen how you guys play. Can you give us an example of what that really means and what it’s like on the inside, how you guys view your own culture and that tough mentality.
BRANDEN DAWSON: Just come to Michigan state. That was one thing that Coach mentioned. He said we’re going to — his program, they really emphasize toughness, defense, and they have a saying, “Players play and tough players win championships.” When we first came here, that’s what really — with Draymond Green and Derrick Nix and all the New York guys focused on. So us three, the way we carry the team, we just have the same mentality, just playing hard, playing with toughness, and really just rebounding the ball.