East Lansing — Tom Izzo has said it every time the subject comes up about the long layoff from the end of the Big Ten tournament to the start of the NCAA Tournament.
If the Spartans make a deep run, then the break was great. Flame out early, and the time off was awful.
But by the time third-seeded Michigan State takes on No. 14 Bucknell on Friday night in the Midwest Region at Little Caesars Arena, the 12 off days in between games won’t matter. At least, that’s the way Izzo sees it.
“You know, who cares?” Izzo said. “I'm not going to be any different than any other coach probably. If you win, the two weeks off did you well. If you lose, they caused you to lose. I'll say it now ahead of time -- nothing is going to cause us to lose but us.”
In other words, Michigan State — the regular-season Big Ten champion and a favorite to reach the Final Four all season — is good enough to beat any team in the field. So, long break or not, advancing to that point will be on the Spartans.
That said, Michigan State and the three other Big Ten teams in the field — Michigan, Purdue and Ohio State — entered new territory this season with the conference tournament played a week early. The Buckeyes and Spartans both will have had 12 days off before tipping off in the NCAA Tournament while the Boilermakers would have waited 11 days and the Wolverines 10.
Izzo admitted the long stretch is different and he has reached out to coaches like Gonzaga’s Mark Few, whose team routinely deals with longer breaks before the NCAA Tournament because the WCC tournament ends several days ahead of the NCAA bracket reveal.
“I guess I still am worried about it,” Izzo said Sunday night. “I mean, it'll be almost two weeks off, but at the same time, I think getting into a normal regimen this week is going to help us. (We) did a little scrimmaging last week. We'll probably take one of the days this week and bring in officials again, and I think our kids will be motivated to play in Detroit, too.”
What’s also been unique for Michigan State is the fact last week was spring break. So instead of continuing the normal routine of heading to class and fitting extra practice, the Spartans found themselves with even more time on their hands.
That’s why Izzo decided to give his team its own spring break, taking two days to head to Chicago and take in a Bulls game and a performance of “Hamilton.”
“It was confusing last week. I can't lie to you,” Izzo said. “Should we give them today off? Should we have an individual work? You know, we have all day. If they don't do anything, they're just sitting there, and that would've been brutal. So just a little trip to Chicago if nothing else did something for our camaraderie. I mean, they got to spend time just together, not a lot of distractions around them. It was probably good for them.”
For a team that has had outstanding chemistry dating back to last season, it was just another chance to build on that.
“Just how together we were,” Cassius Winston said of the trip. “It’s just another instance, you know we had a lot of time on our hands, a lot of things that we just, we stuck together and we just better and better and we just keep getting better.”
It wasn’t all fun and games. There has been plenty of work done over the past week-plus on the court and in the film room. It was mostly an effort to breathe some life into the Spartans’ offense, which wasn’t firing on all cylinders in New York.
“We'll be good defensively, I really believe that,” Izzo said. “It’s offensively getting more movement that we really spent some time on. If you look at our team early in the year, we were getting 25 field goals and 20 assists and I think that the ball isn't moving as well now. I don't think it's anybody's fault. I don't think it's through selfishness. I think it's just, maybe we're not realizing that it's got to move as well as it does have to move and so that's what we've really put some emphasis on.”
That emphasis will continue right up until Friday night. At that point, the Spartans are confident the long break will pay off.
“It’s been great practice for us,” Miles Bridges said. “We got into the gym a lot and watched a lot of film. We worked on our offense, our defense, so I feel like we’re going to be better on our offense, our execution is going to be better.”
Michigan State vs. Bucknell
Tip-off: 7:10 Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State 29-4; No. 14 seed Bucknell 25-9
Next up: Winner faces the winner between No. 6 TCU and the winner of the No. 11 Arizona State and No. 11 Syracuse “First Four” game Sunday.
No. 3 Michigan State (29-4) vs. No. 14 Bucknell (25-9), 7:10
No. 6 TCU vs. No. 11 Arizona State (20-11) or No. 11 Syracuse (20-13), 9:40 (Arizona State and Syracuse play a First Four game Wednesday)
Winners, TBA Sunday
No. 2 Purdue (28-6) vs. No. 15 Cal State Fullerton (20-11), 12:40
No. 7 Arkansas (23-11) vs. No. 10 Butler (20-13), 3:10
Winners, TBA Sunday