Vaught's Views: MSU fans antsy over schedule

December 11, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

Playing a tough non-conference schedule full of marquee opponents guarantees national television exposure, should help recruiting and normally will make a good team even better at March Madness.

However, that tough non-conference schedule is what fans claim they want to see. Or at least that's what they say until their team loses.

Remember the reaction here last year when UK started 6-3 and lost not only to Michigan State at home, but also got embarrassed at Louisville? The Big Blue Panic spread across the state and it was midway through UK's 26-game win streak after that 6-3 start before the panic went away.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is learning the perils of playing that glamorous schedule this year. His team has been as good as any in the country the last six years with a national championship, three Final Four appearances and four Big Ten championships.


That's why he has games with Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse on the schedule this year. However, there's been one problem - Michigan State is 0-3 in those games going into Saturday's game against Kentucky at Ford Field in Detroit.

Izzo knew his team might struggle. He has one star recruit injured and has several other players not on the roster for various reasons that he thought he would when the schedule was made.

"The part that has surprised me is how people have taken it," Izzo said Wednesday of his team's 0-3 mark against Kansas, Duke and Oklahoma.

He says he now understands more about why former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote used to play a much easier non-conference schedule. He said several coaches told him he was "nuts" to play such a difficult schedule.

"I'm learning a little bit and seeing the other side (of scheduling)," Izzo said. "The confidence of the players is one thing, but the confidence of people (fans) is another. They (fans) determine the confidence of your players in this day and age of Internet. Players know who we are playing and how tough it would be, but people forget that."

Not that Izzo thinks he was wrong to play a strong schedule. He still believes for a team to be its best in March, it must be tested in November and December.

"I have never wavered on the schedule, but I did waver on when we played the games," Izzo said. "We played five games in 12 days and had no time to work on getting better ourselves. That hurt us."

Seems like Tubby Smith was saying the same thing last year when Kentucky stumbled early.

Kentucky takes the same scheduling philosophy - and risks the same fan panic - as Michigan State. UK has played UCLA, faces Michigan State Saturday and then has games with Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina coming up. Then there will be that game with Notre Dame during a break from the Southeastern Conference schedule.

However, the danger with playing strong competition is what happens when a team loses. It can result in a drop in the rankings - and potentially in NCAA seeding - as well as panic among fans.

"Nobody cares what the circumstances are of who you are playing when," Izzo said. "All they care about is did you win and what did you do in the tournament. I was a little surprised that even around the area that people are in a panic a little quicker than I thought they would and that affects the players."

Remember how Tubby Smith warned UK fans that Winthrop would not be a pushover in the season opener? Most Kentucky fans ignored him and forgot his warning after the Cats won 65-44. But for those who noticed, Winthrop went to Georgia Tuesday and won easily.

"I've been surprised by what I've seen across the country," Izzo said.

"It's just amazing to me the number of teams that have lost. Some of it is parity. We just are not used to certain teams playing with, or beating, other teams. I don't think we as media, fans or coaches are ready to accept Butler or Tulsa beating people."

Or Kentucky losing to Michigan State if you are a UK fan or State losing to Kentucky, Duke, Oklahoma or Kansas if you are a Michigan State fan.

"We won at Kentucky last year. It was not a fluke, but if Kentucky played us eight or nine times there, they would beat us," Izzo said. "But it sure didn't kill them because they went on a run after that that was second to none."

And it took that run to cure the Big Blue Panic created by that non-conference schedule that produced losses to Virginia, Michigan State and Louisville.

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