Piscataway, N.J. – Dealing with expectations is par for the course at Michigan State.
But as the third-ranked Spartans were getting set to play their first true road game of the season on Tuesday night at Rutgers, those expectations have done nothing but skyrocket the past couple of weeks.
Michigan State entered the season as the No. 2 team in the country and was put to the test in the second game, a matchup with No. 1 Duke at the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils got the best of the Spartans in a tight game, one that left many college basketball fans hoping for a rematch at the end of the season.
Since then, Michigan State (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) has hardly disappointed, rolling to a championship in the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational, which included three blowout wins, including an 18-point victory over then-No. 9 North Carolina. The Spartans followed that with an 18-point win over then-No. 5 Notre Dame last week in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
With a quick two-game dip into conference play before finishing off the non-conference portion of the schedule the rest of the month, the key will be continuing to live up to the lofty expectations.
It was something that was on coach Tom Izzo’s mind on Sunday after Michigan State handled Nebraska, 86-57, but included plenty of gripes for Izzo.
“I wanted to see if we could handle a little success,” Izzo said, “handle everybody kissing our tails, and I didn’t think that the grit was there today.”
While Michigan State cruised to the victory, Izzo pointed out the poor fast break that produced only eight points, as well as the defense that allowed Nebraska to shoot 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
It’s led to Izzo focusing on keeping his team from reading its press clippings, or as Izzo pointed out, following their social media feeds.
“Whatever they do, I just prefer them just thinking about what we’re seeing, which is so much harder to do these days,” Izzo said. “You know, we’re not big-headed, we’re not looking at it that way. I just think there’s a sense of urgency.”
Keeping that sense of urgency will be a challenge. The Spartans face a Rutgers team on Tuesday night that has never been a factor in the Big Ten, and after that, the schedule is light on challenges – save the game against Oakland at Little Caesars Arena in mid-December.
So, keeping that focus against the likes of Houston Baptist and Savannah State will be a test, one the players aren’t sure they passed against Nebraska.
“Probably one of the worst games we’ve played this season,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “We weren’t playing Spartan basketball, we weren’t pushing the ball, we weren’t defending as well. We’re a talented team, so that’s how we hit some shots and made some plays, but we didn’t play our basketball out there.
“No matter the opponent, no matter who we’re playing, we got to play our type of basketball. If this was a road game, a lot of things could’ve went their way, so if we don’t come in with that energy, that focus every game it can hurt us.”
Working on the rotation
Junior forward Kenny Goins has slowly gotten back into the swing of things after missing four games with a knee injury. He played four minutes against Notre Dame and got eight minutes of action in the win over Nebraska.
Depth is one of Michigan State’s strengths, but Izzo said working everyone in is still a challenge.
“We got to get Kenny Goins now back in there a little bit more in the rotation,” Izzo said. “I think he’s good enough to be healthy enough. It would be nice if we could get to the point where we have a true rotation, pretty soon, you know. That will be the next job of me and my staff.”
Michigan State entered Tuesday’s game having won six straight by an average margin of 21.5 points. The last time Michigan State won six straight games by 18 or more points was at the start of the 1985-86 season.
... The Spartans have a +14.4 rebound advantage in the last five games and have only been out-rebounded once this season. Michigan State ranks No. 5 in the country in rebound margin (+12.4 overall) and No. 8 in blocked shots per game (7.3).