East Lansing – Tom Izzo said before the season began he’d know plenty about his team by the time it finished with a brutal schedule through the month of November.
Heading into the final game of that stretch, the Spartans find themselves out of the AP Top 25, but Izzo believes they’re headed in the right direction as they prepare to face No. 5 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Cameron Indoor Stadium at 9:30 on Tuesday night.
“Our guys are excited to go to Duke,” Izzo said. “Yesterday we had the longest and best practice that I have had in three years. We put a lot of time in because it was a day we could do that. You could see in the practice that they were excited and focused in.”
There’s plenty to get done as Michigan State (4-3) returned from a trip to the Bahamas, where it took third place in the Battle 4 Atlantis, beating St. John’s, getting blown out in the second half against Baylor and then bouncing back to beat Wichita State.
That game against Wichita State is what has Izzo feeling confident about the makeup of his team. Instead of letting the losing build, they responded, established a big lead against Wichita State and held off a late rally.
“We really challenged our guys that night and the next morning,” Izzo said of coming off the loss to Baylor and preparing to face Wichita State. “Probably the greatest thing for the entire trip was that they responded. When you get a team to respond, that is how you build a team. You get your defense better, you get your offense better; getting them to respond to controversy is as critical as anything.
“In our last five games we have had a lot of no-day, one-day and two-day preps at the longest. That’s very difficult for a young team and I saw some progress in those short turnarounds. I am basing a lot of that on Wichita State because of how we responded after that loss was exciting.”
It’s exciting for Izzo because he was worried that early losses could start to build for the Spartans. It began with a loss at the buzzer to Arizona, a game Michigan State led by 15, followed by a blowout at the hands of Kentucky.
Add in the loss to Baylor and there was a chance things could have gone in the wrong direction, making the win over Wichita State all that more important.
“I was really worried that we could get clobbered and have one of those games and lose and then get down,” Izzo said. “But I think they feel like they coulda, shoulda beat Arizona. I feel like they feel we’ve competed for more than a little stretch of those other two games we lost. So I think it’s become more positive than negative, at least in their mind and my mind it has. But that was a big concern, because as I always argued with Dick Vitale, what’s more -- confidence or competition? Well, he always thought competition, and so do I.
“Getting that consistency is the next step for Michigan State basketball.”
Playing in one of the toughest environments in college basketball will be difficult, to say the least. Michigan State has never won at Duke and Izzo is just 1-9 in his career against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Getting that first win in a hostile environment would be a big step for this Michigan State team.
“You want to go down there and play well,” Izzo said. “You want to go down there and play well for your team, for your players and for your program. But there’s a reason we’ve lost to them. They’ve got a damn good program, and a good team and good players and a good coach.”
The Blue Devils will be without freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, who have yet to play this season because of injury, and they could be without junior guard Grayson Allen, who had been bothered by an ankle injury before hurting his toe on Saturday against Appalachian State.
But Michigan State, of course, is without big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter, something that won’t change anytime soon.
That leaves the Spartans building off what they have, and they believe that’s a team that learned a bit about itself last week and feels good moving forward.
“It’s gonna be a big-time game for us and everybody is excited to play,” junior guard Tum Tum Nairn said. “We’ve got to go execute the game plan and take care of the ball and give ourselves the best chance to win the game. … I’m confident where we’re headed.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is 1-9 vs. Duke in his career. Here’s a breakdown of those games:
Dec. 2, 1998: Neutral site, L 73-67
March 27, 1999: Neutral site, L 68-62
Dec. 3, 2003: Home, L 72-50
Nov. 30, 2004: Away, L 81-74
March 25, 2005: Neutral site, W 78-68
Dec. 1, 2010: Away, L 84-79
Nov. 15, 2011: Neutral site, L 74-69
March 29, 2013: Neutral site, L 71-61
Nov. 18, 2014: Neutral site, L 81-71
April 4, 2015: Neutral site, L 81-61
Michigan State at Duke
When: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m.
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham, N.C.
TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 4-3, Duke 6-1
Outlook: This is the third time Michigan State has played at Duke in the history of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It lost in 2004 and 2010. … MSU is 7-9 in the history of the Challenge. It beat Louisville last year at home. Its only road win came at North Carolina in 1999, the first year of the event. … Duke has won 129 consecutive non-conference games at Cameron.