MSU sophomores Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford talk about the PK80-Phil Knight Invitational, and the possibility of playing without injured star Miles Bridges. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Tom Izzo stood at the edge of the court at the Breslin Center this week and held his thumb and index finger an inch apart.
As No. 4 Michigan State prepared to head to Portland, Ore., for the inaugural PK80 Invitational that starts Thursday with a game against DePaul, the Spartans coach was describing where he thought his team stood heading into a tournament full of heavyweights.
“Watching film, we feel like we’re this far away from being really good right now,” Izzo said, using his fingers for the visual aid. “But as I told my players, they’ve got to do the things that are a choice. Not the skill things. It’s setting better screens, moving off them strong, running a little harder, pushing the ball up a little bit better — all the things that are choices.
“The making a shot or this or that, those are skill-level things. Right now, the skill level isn’t a problem.”
That skill level took a hit last week when junior forward Kenny Goins was lost for a few games because of a knee injury and could be hindered much more significantly if sophomore forward Miles Bridges is limited this week. He injured his ankle in the win over Stony Brook on Sunday and his status won’t be any clearer until at least the Spartans are getting ready to tip off on Thursday.
“Everyone brings a lot to the table,” sophomore guard Joshua Langford said. “If Miles doesn’t play we all have to pick up his slack together.”
Bridges’ status is bound to have an impact on how far Michigan State (2-1) is from being really good, as Izzo described.
The Spartans still have the loss to No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic on their minds, and while the Blue Devils will be in Portland, they won’t be in the same bracket. No. 9 North Carolina is, and while Michigan State would need to beat DePaul and either Oregon or Connecticut on Friday, the prospect of facing the Tar Heels in the championship game is high.
DePaul comes first, however. The Blue Demons (1-2) beat Delaware State but have losses to Notre Dame and Illinois, two teams Michigan State will see later this season.
Taking care of business against DePaul will be Michigan State’s first chance to win in a tournament setting. It’s something Izzo has emphasized as being critical to the Spartans’ consistent success in March.
“You have to figure out how to win in a tournament. It’s survive and advance, as they say,” Izzo said. “This is a tournament, and it’s a big tournament. We could play some great teams and the problem you have now is the first game is gonna be just as good as any other game because they’re playing a little better. They’re definitely a better team than they were last year, and have some things that make it difficult for us.”
The Spartans have had their share of success in tournament settings. In the Big Ten championship season of 2015-16, they opened by beating Boston College, Boise State and Providence to win the Wooden Legacy. The year before they reached the championship of the Orlando Classic, losing a tight game to Kansas.
Getting comfortable in a tournament setting once again will be one of the goals this week for a young roster that hasn’t been part of many deep tournament runs.
“It’s definitely (about) getting used to that adjustment, playing a game and then turning around and playing a whole different team,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “We’ve got to go in with that focus. Everything is not going to go perfect, your body might hurt a little bit but you’ve got to come in and be mentally strong, got to be mentally tough with the quick turnaround and focus for each game.”
Ultimately, however, it’s about winning. That’s something that will always be the end goal for the Spartans.
They expect to do it in the Big Ten. They expect do it in the NCAA Tournament.
And, they expect to do it his week.
“We never feel like we’re satisfied until we win the national championship and a Big Ten championship,” Langford said. “What we want to get out of this tournament is where we stand as a team and the things we need to work on. But also we want to go out to win every game we play and try to show everybody that Michigan State basketball is here and here to stay.”