Gary Harris says the Spartans had an intense practice Tuesday. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — On Monday, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo warned it was coming.
Following Sunday’s loss at home to Nebraska, there was going to be a new type of intensity around the 13th-ranked team in the nation.
“I’ve been told by a lot of people move on, burn the tape, go forward,” Izzo said. “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to try to learn from the tape, spend time with some guys today and then get after it tomorrow and I mean get after it. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
That tomorrow was Tuesday, the first time No. 13 Michigan State hit the practice floor. And predictably, it was intense. Nothing was off limits as players went at each other as if trying out for the team.
Gary Harris said it was to be expected after the loss to the Cornhuskers.
“It was more intense and everybody came with the right attitude to get better,” he said. “Nobody is feeling sorry for themselves after we just lost. … We have a big game Thursday and a big game Sunday, so I think everybody had the right mindset.”
Whether the loss to Nebraska is a wake-up call remains to be seen. The Spartans have gone 3-4 in their last seven games and with only five games left in the regular season, getting on the same page is critical.
Michigan State (21-5, 10-3 Big Ten) plays at Purdue on Thursday night before heading to Ann Arbor on Sunday for its rematch with Michigan. It will be a battle for first place if the Spartans take care of business against the Boilermakers (15-10, 5-7).
The Spartans insist they are in no position to be looking ahead toward the Wolverines.
“We got three weeks left in the season, and it’s a big three weeks,” Izzo said. “We got some big games coming up, including the first one coming up against Purdue. Their record may not be as good as some, but if you look at their games, they are coming off of their best performance against Indiana.”
Purdue defeated Indiana on Saturday, just its second win in seven games.
However, the importance of bringing the intensity seen in Tuesday’s practice to each game has now been hammered home with the Spartans as they head into Thursday’s game expecting the best from the Boilermakers.
“They’re a real tough team,” senior guard Keith Appling said. “They’ve got a lot of small, scrappy guards and the big guy, (A.J.) Hammons. They do a lot of things, and we’ve got to go into Purdue ready to play for 40 minutes. It will be more of a dogfight than a basketball game. Those guys are scrappy and will do whatever it takes to win. We’ve got to try and outplay them at both ends of the floor.”
Michigan State feels fortunate it will be able to try and do it with Appling. He missed three games with a sore right wrist before returning Sunday against Nebraska. However, he struggled at times and Izzo was unsure Monday whether Appling would be available Thursday night.
By Tuesday morning, Appling’s wrist felt much better and he went through nearly the entire practice.
Appling played 19 minutes against Nebraska — more than expected because Travis Trice was in foul trouble — but he isn’t putting any expectations on his minutes against Purdue.
“I don’t expect to star, I’m just going to play,” Appling said. “I don’t care about starting. It makes no difference to me. As long as I get the opportunity to help my team win the basketball game I’ll be satisfied with that. Whether I play 10 minutes in the second half or if I’m starting, it makes no difference. I just want to play.”
The Spartans will definitely be without forward Branden Dawson, who will miss his eighth game with a broken right hand. The native of Gary, Ind., typically has his best games against Purdue, whose fans are still bitter Dawson chose Michigan State over Purdue.
Their ire will likely now be directed toward Harris, another Indiana native who rejected the Boilermakers, despite the fact his parents both graduated from Purdue and his mother’s jersey hangs in the rafters at Mackey Arena.
“It’s kind of cool,” Harris said of playing at Purdue. “I’m very familiar with everything about Purdue, the campus, the facilities, everything. It’s pretty cool to go back there and I’ve got some friends on the team.”
But all of that is secondary to the fact Michigan State feels like it understands what lies ahead over the next few weeks, and Thursday night’s game is just the first step.
“Even though we’re disappointed with the loss, we couldn’t ask to be in a better position,” Harris said. “If we win out, our destiny is in our hands. If we win out, we’re Big Ten champions. It’s a lot on us, but in the next five games we can reach one of our goals and there needs to be a mindset that we’ve gotta be ready to play each game.”