Spartans in, Jacobson out

by Tim Klobuchar

San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci and Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo have plenty in common.
They grew up together in Iron Mountain, Mich. They both attended Northern Michigan University, where they were roommates. They’ve also both gone on to successful coaching careers.
“We’ve been best men in each other’s weddings,” Izzo said. “He’s probably my best friend in the world, and I’m really proud of the job he’s done.”
But in addition to the sport, there’s a key difference between the teams they coach. While Mariucci, as a West Coast offense disciple, is known for favoring an offense based on finesse, Izzo is head of a team that’s surprised the Big Ten this season with its bruising nature.
The Spartans lead the conference in scoring defense (60.5 points per game allowed), field goal defense (37.8 percent) and rebounding margin (+11.6).
Michigan State isn’t particularly tall, with no starters over 6-8, but is a physical team. Junior Antonio Smith led the Big Ten in rebounding last season with more than 10 per game.
“They can bang,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “They remind me of our team last year. They’re big, strong, tough, aggressive.”
Normally, the rebounding stat alone would be enough to throw a scare into Minnesota, which has had trouble all year long with tall, tough teams. Haskins said that 6-8 walk-on Rob Schoenrock would have to help offset the Spartans’ advantage in physical strength. Now, with their top two scorers nursing injuries, the Gophers have to deal with another match-up problem when they play the Spartans tonight at Williams Arena.
Haskins said that leading scorer Sam Jacobson is not likely to play tonight because of a back sprain that has sidelined him since Jan. 2. Haskins said he hopes Jacobson will be ready for Sunday’s game against Iowa or early next week.
Quincy Lewis, who sprained his left thumb in the second half of Saturday’s loss at Penn State, is expected to play tonight with a soft cast on the thumb.
“Anytime you have anything on your hand, it affects you,” Haskins said. “He won’t be 100 percent, but he will be able to function.”
Lewis might have to be more than functional for the Gophers to get their first win of the Big Ten season. In his and Jacobson’s absence, much of the scoring load has fallen to senior point guard Eric Harris, who has led Minnesota with 19 and 20 points in the last two games. It’s not a role Harris is accustomed to.
“It’s tough to go from the quarterback of the team for three years to being a main shooter,” Haskins said. “Eric is not that type of shooter. He doesn’t have the temperament to score 25-30 points game. We want him to shoot more, but we still have to be patient and get the ball back to him on a reverse.”
Harris will also have the unenviable task of defending Spartans point guard Mateen Cleaves, who scores almost 16 points per game and easily leads the Big Ten in assists with 7.4 per game. The sophomore’s emergence as an all-around player is one of the biggest reasons for Michigan State’s improvement from sixth in the conference last season to a tie for third this year, highlighted by a 74-57 victory at then-No. 5 Purdue to open the conference season.
“He’s a different player,” Izzo said. “He’s at least 15 to 18 pounds lighter than he was at the end of last year and probably 25 to 30 pounds lighter than he was at the beginning. He’s getting better, and consequently we’ve been playing better.”
All of this means that Haskins has to change his normal coaching strategy. He wanted to keep his game plan a total secret, but when asked the obvious — if the Gophers would have to slow the game down — he said:
“I don’t want to say we’re going to slow it to a walk, but we’re going to have to be a little more conservative.”