Spartans will welcome their own ‘spring break’ after Big Ten tournament

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo coaches the Spartans during their win Sunday in Wisconsin.

When the Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany decided to play the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, it came with one significant caveat – it would be played a week earlier than normal.

That, of course, created a couple of key issues for teams in the conference. First, it meant playing a condensed schedule that started with a pair of Big Ten games before the end of the calendar year and fewer days off between games.

The second was for conference teams that would be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Those teams would be dealing with a week off before Selection Sunday, something they had never done, as the championship game of the conference tournament typically led right into the CBS selection show.

Since last year there has been speculation about how teams would approach that week. Would they welcome the break? Would they schedule a game? Would they practice harder?

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Tournament week is here with play beginning Wednesday afternoon in New York and running through Sunday. Michigan State (28-3, 16-2 Big Ten) is the top seed and plays at noon Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 Maryland and No. 9 Wisconsin.

After they’re done, the Spartans are looking forward to a break.

“We’re thinking of going to the Bahamas for the week in between and having a little spring break,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on the Big Ten conference call Monday. “I can’t say I was a big fan of it because we are creatures of habit. But I understand why Jim and the conference had to do it. I think in this one strange case for Michigan State, maybe having a little time with all the things we’ve been through would be a positive for us between the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament.”

What they’ve been through has been well documented.

It began with an ESPN report in late January that questioned how the basketball program has handled sexual assault cases over the years, and continued last week with the mother of sophomore Miles Bridges having her name included in documents relating to the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. The same reports had emails from Christian Dawkins – the associate of former NBA agent Andy Miller – referencing MSU associate head coach Dwayne Stephens.

By Saturday, Bridges had been cleared to play by the NCAA and Stephens denied any wrongdoing and was on the bench for the season finale at Wisconsin on Sunday.

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But, Izzo admitted after the win at Wisconsin, the Spartans did seem mentally drained. So, regardless of how they perform this week, they’ll take the time off.

It’s the approach that most teams likely will take, as well, and Izzo sees that as a good thing.

“I do think this is one year that, just because of the compressed schedule and everything,” Izzo said, “maybe having that week will give teams a little more chance to work on themselves instead of constantly preparing for the opponent.”

Adjusting to this year’s schedule likely will be a one-time thing.

Delany told the Chicago Tribune last week that the condensed schedule has not worked out well and there are no plans to do it again. However, even with the tournament returning to Indianapolis and Chicago for the most part, he still hopes to play the tournament on the East Coast in some years.

“I appreciate the sacrifices the teams made, the impact it had on our students,” Delany told the Tribune. “Wasn’t good. Wasn’t healthy. I thought starting (the conference schedule) early was OK, but if you look at our schedules (through the years), we’ve been able to give everybody two-day prep (before games) in 99 percent of the cases. We won’t do it again this way.

“If we can make it back to the Garden on a regular week (just before the start of the NCAA Tournament), that’s great. I know we will be back out East. Where we will be, I don’t know. It won’t be on a regular basis. I expect that 80 percent will be in legacy territory (Chicago and Indianapolis) and probably 20 percent out East, whether it’s in D.C. or Philadelphia or New York.”

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Even with the difficulties the schedule presented this season, Izzo and most of the conference’s coaches agreed – their players are looking forward to playing in New York.

“I know this,” Izzo said. “The kids are really excited to play in Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball arenas, and I think I will be too when we get there.”