|Monday, November 4
Updated: November 5, 4:29 PM ET
Spartans' private 'Wars' prepare MSU for battle
By Andy Katz
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State freshman forward Paul Davis had an ice pack on his left hand, his right wrist taped because of a deep bruise, scratches along his shoulders and back, and a bandage over his left eye after an elbow caught him and opened up a cut.
But he wasn't complaining. As soon as he heard the "War" during Michigan State's first week of practice, he knew he was in for a beating. It is, perhaps, the toughest rebounding drill in the country. It's why Michigan State has consistently been one of the top rebounding teams in the nation.
And to a player, every Spartan says the reason is the War drill.
"It's the most physical, and to some extent, the most fun drill we do," Davis said. "Everyone on this team has a competitive attitude, and for that 10 minutes we're all going at it. There are no fouls, no stoppage in play unless the ball is going out of bounds. We're just banging in there."
Here are the rules: Five players are inside the paint, facing five more on the outside. A coach takes a shot, purposely missing. The five inside are told to hit the five outside first, and then turn for the rebound. The contact isn't a punch or a two-arm raised blow. It's supposed to be a straight forearm, a legal move to be used in a game, but hard enough to send a message and push the offensive player back a step. And when the defenders turn, they are expected to go get the rebound, not simply box out and let the ball fall to the floor.
"If you don't hit them then the offensive guys are still coming at you and they'll get the ball," Davis said. "You've got to go hard in this drill. There are 10 Division I players all going for the ball and somebody is going to get it before it hits the ground. The philosophy is to get three, a two and a free throw. Get the foul and be prepared that you'll get hit even if you make the layup. You've got to go up strong."
But what, if any, could the Spartans get away with in a game? Remember, there are no officials for this drill and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo only blows his whistle to point out who didn't hit someone, not who committed a foul.
"It's a wild, wild rebounding drill," senior forward Adam Ballinger said. "Maybe only the initial blockout would be allowed. It's a little harder in a game than in this drill. Here, you know when there is going to be a shot. The biggest thing this teaches you is to react to the ball and not wait for it."
"The first time I was doing it, I was like, 'This is like playing football.' Now I see why we led the Big Ten in rebounding,'' sophomore Alan Anderson said. Michigan State ranked sixth nationally in 2002 and extended its Big Ten rebounding advantage to five straight seasons, outrebounding teams by an average of 7.9 boards a game.
Izzo uses this drill that sends players going halfspeed into walls twice a practice, sometimes three times, to not only work on rebounding but to add some energy to a practice. It's also the most talked about and dissected drill in any post or pre-practice video discussions. Izzo made sure to point out during one practice that Aloysius Anagonye had tossed freshman Delco Rowley aside like a rag doll. When Davis got an offensive rebound, it was cause for celebration, as the freshman forward was clearly earning his keep.
And Izzo had a field day getting on Slovenian Erazem Lorbek. Lorbek chose Michigan State to get tougher, to learn how to rebound so he could make an attempt at an NBA career. During the first week of practice, Lorbek was getting blown around like tall, dry grass in a stiff breeze. Izzo had to remind him that he had to hit someone, not push, or lightly tap 'em, but really throw his weight around.
"He was pretty surprised that first day," Ballinger said of Lorbek.
"European players are more finesse and he's really taken his game to a more physical level," Davis said. "He's going to become a Michigan State rebounder. We're all trying to help him get there and get stronger."
"He's got a ways to go," Izzo said. "The hardest thing is for foreigners to understand how physical and tough the game can be. I'm sure he doesn't love it, but the more he gets into it the more he enjoys it. It's an aggressive nature that carries over to practice. I don't just do it for rebounding."
Izzo got the idea for the War drill after the Spartans got beat in the Maui Invitational by North Carolina and Santa Clara in his first season as head coach in 1995.
"I didn't think we were that tough," Izzo said. "Honestly, I just made it up. I hadn't seen it anywhere."
The drill took on a life of its own when Izzo took it to another level following a loss at Ohio State Jan. 20, 2000 -- the national championship season. Mateen Cleaves had just come off his ankle injury, but he wasn't going to duck out of the drill, not this day. Izzo told one of his managers to go to the football equipment office and get 10 sets of pads and helmets.
Izzo told Cleaves to sit it out because he was hurt. But his captain told him, "That's bull." Izzo then said, "Fine, you're in it, then."
"He was so jacked he was teaching the big guys how to buckle a chin strap," Izzo said. "I know A.J. Granger was saying this 'SOB is nuts.' They were putting on shoulder pads. We had a riot. It almost didn't work the way I wanted it to because the guys enjoyed it so much."
Izzo says no one has ever been seriously hurt during the drill, nor has he ever had a fight result from the physical beatings under the basket.
"We hit and go, we don't hit and hold," Izzo said. "You've got to go after the rebounds and get them above the rim. Don't let them come to you."
Izzo said the drill makes a team tougher and "tougher teams always win. It's a mentality and these freshmen have never been hit before."
Whenever Izzo talks to other coaches they think he has a number of rebounding drills. They're surprised to learn he just has one called "War."
"It's like football practice because you're smashing each other," sophomore Chris Hill said. "This is full contact, man-to-man, throwing your body at each other. If an official was calling it, I don't think we would have any players left.
"Honestly, the soreness doesn't go away all year long," Hill adds. "The first three weeks are hell. You get so many aches and bumps and bruises from that drill alone that I bet if you go to the trainer after practice every freshman will be in there icing down."
But not complaining, not when this drill is the basis for Michigan State's practice. If a player doesn't buy into Izzo's reasons for his War, well then he probably wasn't tough enough to stay with the Spartans anyway.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.