Tom Izzo has spent the last two weeks working on his shooting form. Not for his mid-range jumper or from the short corner, but shooting down rumors being tossed around the hoopsphere suggesting that the Detroit Pistons sidelines were in his future.
When answering the questions about his own pro prospects he’s sounded more miffed and defensive than President Obama attending the Republican National Convention.
Izzo has his own outfit to run at Michigan State in the mold of Gregg Popovich’s San low-key Antonio’s Spurs regime.
Izzo’s greatness is also understated when considering the difference in raw talent that both he and Pop are working with in comparison to their peers. Izzo isn’t starving, but the caliber of court resources at his disposal compared to Duke’s underground pipeline is vastly inferior. The results haven’t been.
For the most part, free agent gravitation to San Antonio consists of over the hill ex-All-Stars and the occasional rotation chess piece to provide relief off their yawning bench. Michigan State has its own issue with prep free agents aka blue chip recruits and they’re situated outside of the major East Coast media markets.
Pop rests his starters periodically to prevent overexertion and the aggravation of injuries that pile up throughout the course of an 82-game season. Izzo's Spartans are a four-seed because injuries to Dawson, Appling and Payne left them with a patchwork Frankenstein roster.
Keith Appling is Michigan State’s backcourt preseason Naismith Player of the Year Watchlist player, but a major wrist injury to his shooting hand has reduced him to a modern day Eric Snow-type facilitator role for the past two months. Branden Dawson picked up the scoring slack, but Adreian Payne’s evolution as a student-athlete at Michigan State has been a testimonial for the four-year program guys at major powerhouses.
Every champion needs that outlier. In San Antonio, Tim Duncan's selection as the No.1 pick in the '97 Draft was the impetus for San Antonio's championship reign out west.
Before the 2014 tournament tipped off, Izzo seemed perturbed by the idea that one-and-done recruits who’d rather be collecting checks and experiencing the bright lights of the NBA weren’t leaping at the opportunity to compete for championships in Lansing, Michigan.
In the class of 2013, in-state recruit James Young opted for Kentucky. Jabari Parker spurned Izzo for Duke causing Izzo to sound despondent over the direction his program was heading in during the one-and-done era. On the flip side, nothing appears to give him as much joy as watching the development of his 6-10 center, Adreian Payne..
Instead, his fourth-year former five-star recruit has been the catalyst for Michigan State’s Elite 8 berth. Of the top three centers from Rivals’ 2010 class rankings, Payne is the only one to remain all four years. Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger are both languishing as Boston Celtics while rolling in modest pro dough while their respective programs missed their presences this season. Payne has become the most complete athlete of the trio in Spartan green.
Four years ago, Payne dropped anchor after floating in from enemy territory in Dayton, Ohio as a sub-50 percent free throw shooter with skills rawer than a fish market. He improved to become a 69 percent shooter from the charity stripe, then topped out as an 85 percent shooter in his junior season.
Golden State Warrior and former Spartans teammate Draymond Green remembers him being “so skinny he could not withstand the wind blowing.” Payne was also hindered by lungs that are too small for someone of his size. Improved conditioning have made his issues with excessive fatigue an afterthought. For his first two seasons, Payne lurked on the fringes of being a run of the mill big man. It wasn’t until midway through his junior season that Michigan State’s tree began getting shine from national outlets.
Since then, he's been the Frankenstein archetype that gaggles of microphone and camera-wielding reporters chase, pitchfork carrying opposing fans lose their voices over and that opponents mob out of fear whenever he receives a pass in scoring position.
Payne’s virtuoso play off the block, from mid-range, behind the arc and repelling shots from the rim has been instrumental in the Spartans matriculating to the Elite 8. The variety of shots Payne drained in his 41-point NBA workout against Delaware was impressive enough. His immaculate 17 for 17 shooting from the free throw line went somewhat unnoticed outside of Michigan State.
Payne jump shot isn’t as proficient away from the basket as Doug McDermott, but against the Cavaliers, he flashed the sort of versatility that projects him to be a more valuable long-term pro prospect than the runaway Naismith Player of the Year. Like Noah constructing his boat, Michigan State survived courtesy of Payne making it rain from behind the arc.
After hesitating on taking an open shot on the same possession, Izzo lit into Payne for his passiveness during the timeout with under two minutes remaining in regulation. During his freshman season, Pane’s shot selection was repulsive. He had no restraint. Yet here was Izzo imploring his even-keeled senior to shoot.
The senior responded with a pick and pop three which put Michigan State up for good.
Payne slipped to the left wing out of a pick he’d set for Appling and drained the trey that gave Michigan State a 54-51 lead.
“I didn't shoot the first three that I had the opportunity to. They called a timeout. Coach talked to me about it, and then the second time it was just another opportunity that happened, and I just took it, stepped up and knocked it down.” Payne disclosed.
Appling, who had the option to pass into the corner or drive to the hoop himself, found Payne leaking out, piano fingers wriggling, signaling his readiness without a defender in the vicinity to close out on him and confidently supplied his center with the rock 23 feet from the basket.
“We just wanted to get it into a high ball screen, he [Izzo] really wanted me to create something, but they did such a great job of packing it in it was almost like I couldn’t go anywhere.” Appling explained in the locker room afterwards. “The throwback pass was wide open and I hit Adreian and he knocked the shot down.”
On the next possession, Payne took one dribble inside the lane and in one motion dropped a soft one-handed arching lob over the defense and into Dawson’s hands to extend the lead to five.
Playmaking analogous to what Payne exhibited in Friday night’s waning moments constituted the thin margin that separated the Spartans from the bluer collared Cavaliers. UConn will have a pronounced home court advantage and the blinding lights of Manhattan are a far cry from the dimly lit streets of Lansing, but until further notice, the Garden is a House of Payne.