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East Lansing – Tom Izzo said before the season that the difficult early schedule would give him a better idea of where his Michigan State team stood than if it played a bunch of easy games.

As the No. 24 Spartans head to the Bahamas to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Izzo is getting a better idea and what he sees are things he and his staff are going to continue to hammer, none bigger than the fact Izzo does not believe they are playing with much toughness through four games.

“We’re just playing sissy-ball right now,” Izzo said after a 78-77 victory over Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday. “That’s the way I’m coaching it because I’m worried about injuries and worried about losing another player. So, I’m not going to worry about that and I’m not going to worry about how we’re going to practice anymore. We’ve got to get after it. You become a product of what you do and we became a product, a little bit. We’re softer than we’ve ever been.

“It’s not all their fault; the first guy we’re looking at is me. It’s hard to practice harder when we practice. We’ve been traveling so much, but I’ve been too worried about that. I don’t give a damn if we’re walking on our knees – we’re going to practice harder. We’re going to play harder and when we run out of gas and lose a game, we are going to get right back at it.”

Some of that softness was evident in the win over Florida Gulf Coast, one the Spartans won by a point and were outrebounded 41-29 by the Eagles. That came after Michigan State outrebounded bigger Arizona and Kentucky teams in the first two games.

However, that fire was not evident against Florida Gulf Coast, and while the offense was more efficient and the turnovers were down, the Spartans missed three of their final six free-throw attempts and were just 19-for-33 for the game.

But unlike the loss to Arizona in the opener when a big lead was squandered early and then a smaller lead was surrendered late, Michigan State managed to come away with a win over Florida Gulf Coast and it’s something Izzo hopes helps his team as it prepares to take on St. John’s at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the opener in the Bahamas.

“We found a way to lose at Arizona and we probably played worse against Arizona than we did (against Florida Gulf Coast),” Izzo said. “So maybe there’s good news in that. I thought against Arizona we just found a way to lose.”

The Spartans hope the 31 points from Eron Harris are a sign of things to come and that freshman Miles Bridges finds more consistency after a 4-for-12 shooting night against FGCU. They’ll also hope to get more out of guards Joshua Langford, Matt McQuaid and Alvin Ellis as they look to win a tournament championship.

If they do that, odds are they will end up playing No. 10 Louisville in the championship game, a place Michigan State would get if it beats St. John’s and then the Baylor-VCU winner on Thursday. The championship is Friday.

But if the Spartans expect to get to that point, they’ll need to dial back in to the staples of the program – rebounding and defending.

“It’s who we are,” Izzo said. “The coaches are never going to change as long as I’m here, so we’re going to figure out how to get a way to get that back. We still might miss free throws, we still might turn it over a little bit more. But, our defense and our rebounding is going to improve even if I gotta play five little tiny guys out there.”

St. John’s vs. No. 24 Michigan State

Tip-off: Wednesday, 7 p.m. Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island, Bahamas

TV / radio: AXS TV / WJR 760

Records: St. John’s 2-1, Michigan State 2-2

Outlook: Michigan State takes on St. John’s to open its first appearance in the Battle 4 Atlantis. It’s a homecoming for junior guard Tum Tum Nairn, who grew up minutes from where the Spartans will be playing. … The Red Storm’s one loss this season came at Minnesota last week. … Former Spartan Marvin Clark plays for St. John’s but is sitting out this season after his transfer from MSU.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau

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