Spartans show 'grit, toughness' as they head to Louisville
East Lansing — Before Michigan State headed to Las Vegas last week, Tom Izzo wasn’t exactly sure he knew the makeup of his team.
Yeah, the Spartans head coach understood players strengths and weaknesses on the court but trying to nail down their mental toughness was something he hadn’t had a chance to figure out. That was to be expected after three straight easy wins over mid-majors.
However, Michigan State was about to begin a two-and-a-half week stretch that included the Las Vegas Invitational followed by a week with two straight road games — at Louisville and Rutgers in the Big Ten opener — then a home game with Iowa and capped by a trip to Florida.
Just two games into that run, one that culminated with a championship in Vegas after victories over UCLA and Texas, Izzo is starting to get a better idea.
“I think we’ve got a little more grit and toughness than I thought we had,” Izzo said. “You talk to other coaches, and it was good to talk to (UCLA’s Steve) Alford. (Texas coach) Shaka (Smart) is a good friend of mine and we got to talk after the game about what he liked about my team, what I liked about his team. Dwayne Stephens is real close with one of the assistants at Texas.
“So, you kinda get a chance to (talk) and you don’t think your team is ever physical enough or tough enough and other people think they’re tougher. … I just compare ours to those championship years when we were tougher than nails. We’re probably a little better in that area.”
Michigan State showed that toughness on Friday against Texas in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational. The Longhorns led, 25-6, in the first half as the Spartans were busy turning the ball over and being overwhelmed by the athleticism of Texas.
Instead of crumble, however, Michigan State responded by outscoring Texas, 72-43, the rest of the way to earn a 10-point victory. Despite finishing the game with 24 turnovers, it proved the Spartans have plenty of fight in them.
“I just think we started to see how good we really can be,” junior guard Joshua Langford said. “The biggest thing for us is to try and build off this tournament run and allow it to give us a bigger push and take away the positive things, but also the things we can learn from and just keep moving forward.”
No. 9 Michigan State (5-1) will get their next chance Tuesday night when it travels to take on Louisville as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
That grit and toughness that has impressed Izzo will be put to the test as the Spartans play their first true road game of the year at the KFC Yum Center against a Louisville team that is coming off two straight losses to No. 5 Tennessee and Marquette in the NIT Season Tip-off.
It’s the next step Izzo wants to see from his team that is on a high after winning a tournament championship.
“I think you find out a little bit more about your leadership, a little bit more of, OK, can we accept a little bit of success,” Izzo said. “I mean, we won a preseason tournament. It’s a big deal, and then the other side of it, big deal, it doesn’t mean anything in November. But I’m anxious to see how we handle a little bit of success, a very hostile place — 20,000 people will be there. It’ll be a big game for them, a big game for us.
“Our leadership, I’m anxious to see how that goes and whether we can get consistent. … It’ll be 20,000 against us, and that’s an adjustment sometimes, especially for the young kids. I’m looking to see if we respond to a little bit of success. You know, we weren’t real happy with the turnovers and that, so we really addressed some things in practice and film sessions. How will they respond to that? And then, third, how will they respond on the road?”
How they respond will have a lot to do with Langford and fellow junior guard Cassius Winston. The duo led the Spartans over the last two games with Winston earning tournament MVP honors and Langford scoring 22 of his career-high 29 in the second half against Texas.
Langford has scored in double-figures in each of Michigan State’s six games while Winston has done the same, adding double-digit assists in two games.
“This word consistency is kind of what our whole team is talking about,” Izzo said. “The next couple of games are going to be figuring out how do we still get 60-some shots up, which will be very important. We had 51 the last game. Fifty-one shots with 24 turnovers. So with 24 turnovers if you just get 13, which is not great, that’s 11, 12, 13 more shots you get, so then you’re up into the mid-60s there’s more room for more guys to get shots. I think Josh himself would get in the flow a little better, too.”
Langford believes that lesson has been learned and that last week’s performance has shown the Spartans how they need to play each game.
“I think the biggest thing is our consistency,” Langford said. “Now we understand to be a great team we have to put together 40 minutes of basketball and understanding it’s not gonna be perfect but if you control your attitude, your effort and your focus for a full 40 minutes of the game, or at least as much as you possibly can, you can put together a great game. I think we’re starting to understand that.”
No. 9 Michigan State at Louisville
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, KFC Yum Center, Louisville, Ky.
TV/radio: ESPN/760 AM
Records: Michigan State 5-1; Louisville 3-2
Outlook: This will be the first matchup between MSU coach Tom Izzo and Louisville coach Chris Mack. … MSU has beaten Louisville in two straight, knocking off the Cardinals in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at home in 2015 after beating Louisville to reach the Final Four in March of 2015. … Michigan State is 8-10 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. … Sophomore forward Jordan Nwora leads Louisville in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
Big Ten-ACC Challenge
Nebraska 68, Clemson 66
Boston College 68, Minnesota 56
Illinois at Notre Dame, 7 (ESPNU)
Virginia Tech at Penn State, 7 (ESPN2)
Michigan State at Louisville, 7:30 (ESPN)
N.C. State at Wisconsin, 9 (ESPN2)
Pitt at Iowa, 9 (ESPNU)
Indiana at Duke, 9:30 (ESPN)
Rutgers at Miami, 7:15 (ESPNU)
Syracuse at Ohio State, 7:15 (ESPN2)
Virginia at Maryland, 7:30 (ESPN)
Purdue at Florida State, 9:15 (ESPN2)
Georgia Tech at Northwestern, 9:15 (ESPNU)
North Carolina at Michigan, 9:30 (ESPN)