Izzo, Spartans to plunge right into tough non-league schedule

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
This season, coach Tom Izzo decided the Spartans would play just one exhibition and play a closed scrimmage against another Division I team.

East Lansing — There was no easing into the basketball season for Michigan State over the weekend.

Typically, the Spartans will play two exhibition games against Division II teams before embarking on a schedule that is often as tough as any team's in the country. But this season, coach Tom Izzo decided the Spartans would play just one exhibition and play a closed scrimmage against another Division I team.

And, like the regular-season schedules, Michigan State challenged itself Saturday by traveling to Minneapolis and taking on Gonzaga, which is ranked No. 3 in the preseason Associated Press poll and received a first-place vote.

“I think we got a lot out of that,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after practice on Monday. “I’m glad we played a team like that that’s so good.”

“It’s the first time I’ve done it and I really liked it a lot. I love the exhibitions here, but if I did it and did it again I’d try and have something in the morning, something in the afternoon where you spend some time together and then something in the evening and go at it again. I’d be a big fan of that.”

The final score and the statistics show Michigan State — ranked No. 10 in the preseason poll — has some work to do. Gonzaga won each of the 20-minute halves, the first 58-46 and the second 52-46. A late run by the Bulldogs in each half was the difference.

The Spartans also turned the ball over 19 times, something Izzo attributed to his team’s “sloppy” play as much as anything. Cassius Winston had six turnovers.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Nick Ward scored 22 and Xavier Tillman played 23 solid minutes — some of them with Ward. How much Izzo uses the two together moving forward remains to be seen considering the Spartans are a tad thin in the frontcourt. But with Tillman improving his shooting, spacing shouldn’t be an issue.

“It was good,” Izzo said. “X and Nick played good together. X is shooting the ball so much better that he can actually make 3s now, so that helps a little bit. It gives Nick some space. My other main worry is foul trouble. We just don’t have the depth with our bigs. So foul trouble is still something that worries me about it a little bit. That hinders how much we can play those two together.”

Izzo said he intends to start senior Kenny Goins over Tillman, at least Tuesday night when Michigan State hosts Northern Michigan at 7 p.m. in its only exhibition game. It’s something that could change, but Izzo likes what Tillman brings off the bench. As for Goins, Izzo said he took a shot to the face against Gonzaga but was full-go at practice on Monday.

Despite coming up short in the scrimmage, the Spartans believe it will pay off.

“We’re not as far off as we think,” Winston said. “We can be top whatever team. We were in that game. It was just little mistakes, little details we can fix. Everything we did wrong is fixable and that is a positive we got from it

“Off the jump we see where we’re at, we see how the rotations look, we see how we handle the big-game situation. That was big for us, bigger than a lot of exhibition games we can play.”

Watching the kids

How the five-player freshman class integrates into the team is worth watching against Northern Michigan. Forwards Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown will see plenty of time, as will point guard Foster Loyer. As for forwards Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier, the jury is still out.

Izzo said he’ll talk with Bingham about a redshirt but will leave it up to Bingham. At 6-foot-11 and 215 pounds, he needs to get stronger

“The way he shoots it I’d like to not redshirt him,” Izzo said.

As for the rest of the freshmen, Henry, Brown and Loyer played the most vs. Gonzaga.

“Some guys are ready, some guys aren’t ready,” Izzo said, summing up the class. “But we got something out of Aaron Henry, he did a really good job. Gabe was OK and Foster has got some work to do. And Thomas Kithier didn’t play bad either for the time he played.”


Twitter @mattcharboneau

Northern Michigan at Michigan State

Tip-off: 7 Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

Outlook: The only exhibition game of the season for Michigan State, which opens the regular season next week against No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic. … Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and assistant Mike Garland played together at Northern Michigan.