Mike Woodson didn’t hire Dane Fife for his intel on the Michigan State basketball program.
But he isn’t going to run from his assistant coach’s ten years spent working at MSU under Tom Izzo either. Before joining Woodson’s staff in April, Fife had been to five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights and two Final Fours with Izzo at Michigan State.
No one outside of the MSU program is more familiar with the ins and outs of the Izzo way in East Lansing, and Fife knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Spartan players who remain from last season.
With Indiana headed to Michigan State this weekend to face the Spartans, Izzo knows as well as anyone that the Hoosiers will arrive with a deeper insight into his program than just about any opponent could.
“Of course it’s gonna help the familiarity a little bit. I mean he knows what we do,” Izzo said on Thursday. “In some ways we’ve tweaked some things, changed some things, but he knows the players, he knows their tendencies.”
In the ordinary course of things Mike Woodson divides the game planning duties equally among his three assistant coaches. That’s a practice he brought with him from the pros.
“In the past, even when I was in the NBA with all my coaches that worked around me, we would break the season down, and we’ve done the same thing here,” Woodson said Friday morning. “Dane and Ya (Yasir Rosemond) and Kenya (Hunter), they split games. For 30 games, each one of them will have 10 games apiece.”
Whether by chance in the rotation of games or by an adjustment, Woodson confirmed the obvious as it relates to IU’s preparations for Saturday.
“Yes, this (the MSU game) is Dane’s scout. I mean, it has to be his scout,” Woodson said. “He spent most of his time coaching at Michigan State, so what better person would know Izzo and his thinking and the players that he coached here in past years.
“We will rely on some of the things he tells us, but again, we all watch film and come to a conclusion on how we want to play on both ends of the floor, and we’re still trying to work on finishing the game plan as we speak.”
Izzo said he still talks to Fife after encouraging his long-time assistant to take the job at IU, a return trip to Bloomington he knew Fife wanted.
Those conversations likely don’t involve comparing notes on their respective teams, although both coaches of course recall the two matchups involving Michigan State and Indiana last season. In the first meeting in Bloomington, IU forwards Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson combined for 49 points. In the second meeting the pair had just 17.
Izzo thinks finding answers to slow Jackson-Davis and Thompson will ultimately play a larger role than Fife.
“You know coaches can help win games but players play the games,” Izzo said. “I think they’ve done pretty well down there and Mike’s done a good job with their team they play hard as hell. Those two guys inside are really, really, really good players. They can play for any team in this league.
“Trayce Jackson-Davis is a guy that I recruited hard and I absolutely loved his dad, his family, and the kid, and he’s been a hell of a player there.”
Michigan State forward Aaron Henry was the constant in the two games last year, both MSU wins. He scored a total of 49 points in the two meetings.
Woodson and Fife won’t have to worry about Henry, who is now playing in the NBA G-League.
Instead the Spartans present a balanced attack, with no one averaging more than 12.8 points per game, but six who average 7.2 or more. The IU staff is no doubt focused on slowing the Spartans from behind the arc where they are currently ninth in the country with a 38.8 percent 3-point shot conversion rate.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of defending the 3-point line and knowing that we’re going to have to do a hell of a job against this team because they do put up a lot of threes, and they make them,” Woodson said.
“I just think they’re a solid team. Izzo has always had good teams on both ends of the floor. I don’t see anything differently. They compete, man. They play hard. That’s a big part of it.”
Ultimately the two head coaches agree on that latter point playing a bigger role than the coaches. Both teams have lost two games in a row. The team that wants it more at the Breslin Center on Saturday will likely avoid a third.
Fife’s ten years with Izzo are a plus for IU, but ultimately this game will be decided by the usual factors — who makes shots, who takes care of the ball, and who gives the better effort.
“Dane’s familiarity will help, but I don’t think it changes the game that much,” Izzo said.
“And it’ll be good to have him back.”