Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the upcoming stretch of big games, which starts Thursday against UCLA. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — With just less than five minutes left in the game on Sunday night, Tom Izzo called timeout.
Even with his Michigan State team up 56 points, the Spartans’ coach was in a foul mood. He’d just watched his team turn the ball over with a lazy pass that led to an easy bucket for Tennessee Tech.
Forget the fact No. 11 Michigan State would cruise to a 68-point win, matching the largest margin of victory in program history. Izzo was much more focused on the paly of his guys, not the matchup with an undermanned team.
“The last few games there was not a lot of focus on the other team, the emphasis was on us,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “That’s why you see coach coaching like that the last game. The emphasis was on us getting better and competing against ourselves, and it made us a lot better as a team.”
After opening the season against No. 1 Kansas in the Champions Classic, the Spartans (3-1) have worked out some early kinks against the likes of Florida Gulf Coast, Louisiana-Monroe and Tennessee Tech. The three have a combined record of 4-9 with Tennessee Tech checking in at 0-5.
So, it was hardly the top competition, but that doesn’t mean there was little value for the Spartans.
“We got a lot out of two of them, but not much out of the third one,” Izzo said. “What I did get out of it was the turnovers and we did a little better job on the dribble penetration.”
After giving the ball up 18 times against Kansas, Michigan State slowly cut that number over the next three games. The Spartans committed 16 against Florida Gulf Coast but gave it up only seven times against Louisiana-Monroe and eight times vs. Tennessee Tech.
Izzo also got a chance to work more on figuring out a rotation. Six-foot-11 freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. got more time and on Sunday, Izzo opted to bring freshman Gabe Brown off the bench ahead of Aaron Henry. It was a move made strictly to see which combinations might work.
“We strictly wanted to experiment, try it, see it,” Izzo said. “Neither one did much (vs. Tennessee Tech) and we got after them. I love the way both responded. It was probably the greatest thing we got out of the night. They responded at the end. That’s what you always look for. Can a guy take it.”
With seven or eight players firmly in the playing group, the next step for the freshmen trying to gain a footing is handling the next couple of weeks.
It might be Michigan State’s toughest stretch of the season with games against UCLA and either North Carolina or Texas at this week’s Las Vegas Invitational followed by trips to Louisville, Florida and the Big Ten opener at Rutgers.
For the Spartans’ veterans, the key will be getting their younger teammates to take it all in stride.
“It’s gonna be hard to play that many games and almost all on the road,” junior Joshua Langford said. “To be able to win at a high level away takes a lot of focus, takes a lot of preparation and controlling what you can control and doing your job. That’s where veterans and guys like me and Cassius and X (Xavier Tillman) and (Matt) McQuaid and Kenny (Goins) and Nick (Ward) come in and try keep same the level of intensity all throughout those games. You definitely have to be locked in 100 percent to win those games of that caliber,
“You can tell them but it’s something you go into it and just have to be ready for it. We can (make it as easy) as possible because we’ve been through playing those games. A lot of that is making sure they are locked in and focused because it’s hard for them. It’s hard for everyone.”