EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo says he’s on a campaign to get rid of the noise.
The noise is all the talk from outside of a team’s inner circle — social media, regular media, friends and any other distracting influence. All coaches attempt this to one degree or another, but Izzo says he’s committed to cutting it out from his Michigan State basketball team.
Alvin Ellis III was, in Izzo’s opinion, once a victim of the noise. Not anymore, he says, which is why the senior guard is playing his best at the most opportune time.
Ellis has scored 36 points in Michigan State’s first two Big Ten games. He had a career-high 20 points, including three 3-pointers and the game-deciding free throw, in a 75-74 overtime win at Minnesota last Tuesday. He followed that performance with a team-high 16 points in a 61-52 home victory Northwestern on Friday. But Ellis has done more than knock down shots to earn a prominent role in the rotation. He’s embracing doing the little things in practice, playing better defense, grabbing rebounds and accepting whatever role is needed from him.
“It’s being solid in doing the little things,” said Ellis after practice Monday as the Spartans prepared for a home game against Rutgers on Wednesday. “I’m doing a lot of talking, communicating with the guys on the defensive end. I’m just trying to be in the gaps, do those small, little things that coach is looking for and that he needs at the time.”
While Izzo has been trying to find a way to get better play from senior guard Eron Harris, sophomore guard Matt McQuaid and sophomore forward Kenny Goins, it’s been Ellis who has taken advantage of the situation. Now that freshman Miles Bridges is expected to return from a high left ankle sprain in at least a limited capacity against Rutgers, minutes are going to decrease for those who aren’t being productive.
Bridges hasn’t played since Nov. 29 in a 78-69 loss at Duke. The Spartans spent the month of December searching for the right lineup combinations to compensate for the absence of their leading scorer and rebounder.
“(Ellis) has done a lot for us, and give him credit,” Izzo said. “The light goes on for everybody at different times, different places. I think the hardest thing that we’re all having trouble with, and I look around the country and see what’s happened in the last week, can you keep your team focused on the task at hand? Because of the damn noise out there it’s getting harder.
“Alvin was a guy that the noise was bigger than the basketball. Now, to me, the basketball has been bigger than the noise. I think he’s focusing in more.”
Ellis played in 101 games his first three seasons but averaged just 8.0 minutes of playing time. He scored in double figures just twice in that time but in his last five games he’s averaged 23 minutes, 10.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest. He played a career-high 36 minutes against Minnesota.
“We’re a talented team, so whenever we get everyone working at their full potential it’s big,” freshman point guard Cassius Winston said. “Al has stepped up in Big Ten play. We’ve seen it coming.”
Michigan State (10-5, 2-0 Big Ten) has a chance to win its first three conference games for the first time in three seasons. Rutgers (11-4, 0-2) started the season by winning 11 of its first 12 games after going 7-25 last season. The Scarlet Knights have held opponents to 62.3 points per game, the second-lowest average in the Big Ten, and they lead the Big Ten field-goal percentage defense at 37.5 percent.
The Spartans are still expected to win this game. That’s what the noise says. The noise has also questioned why Izzo hasn’t played Ellis more the last three seasons. That answer is simple, if the noise wants to listen.
“He gave himself a chance. I’m obliged,” Izzo said. “I didn’t wake up and say ‘Oh, man, this guy has been playing so good I’m going to play him.’ He did his job, we did our job, and right now I’m proud of what Alvin is doing.”