East Lansing – A day off might not seem like much, but for Michigan State, staying away from the gym for one day was a welcomed respite.
At least, that’s what the Spartans were counting on as they prepared to head to Florida to take on the Gators in a noon tip-off on Saturday. After playing five games in 12 days with only one of them coming at home, it was the perfect time to take a step back.
“That will help us a lot, believe it or not,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
It’s the sort of stretch that has been typical of Michigan State teams in the early weeks of the season. This year’s Thanksgiving trip to the Las Vegas Invitational, along with playing in the Champions Classic and a game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, was actually a bit easier than the last two seasons. The Spartans played three games in Portland over Thanksgiving last year and the year before that had a game in Hawaii followed by a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas.
So, the travel wasn’t quite the same but no less taxing. That’s why this week and the next two will be critical for Michigan State as it plays just four games the rest of the month.
“The next two weeks are critical, starting with the game in Florida,” Izzo said. “It’ll be important. We get by this game on Saturday, and then we get some time. But we do understand we’ll be taking two full days off because of finals. It’s a little better now the way it’s set up because we don’t play until (next) Sunday (against Green Bay).
“We’re gonna find some time during the week to practice, and just to be able to practice and not have the pressure on us of playing another game. I think is gonna be good for this team.”
The down time will allow the Spartans to work on details, such as setting proper screens, but it will also increase the probability that guard Matt McQuaid returns to the lineup. The senior has missed the last three games after suffering a deep thigh bruise in the victory over Texas on Nov. 23.
Since then, the 10th-ranked Spartans have been forced to use junior point guard Cassius Winston for extended minutes as freshman Foster Loyer continues to develop.
“You saw McQuaid was at least practicing a little bit,” Izzo said earlier this week. “What does that mean for Saturday? No real clue yet, but that’s encouraging that he’s at least running and (the leg) is not bad. That will help us a lot.”
Izzo has worried about using Winston too much over the past couple of weeks. He’s played an average of 34 minutes over the last four games, minutes that could shrink if Loyer gets to the point he can play more than a couple of minutes a game.
However, Izzo hasn’t felt comfortable relying on the freshman for long stretches, at least not in some of the high-pressure games the Spartans have been part of. Izzo does believe Loyer will make strides and admits the schedule the Spartans play hasn’t helped Loyer.
“I’ve got to be fair to Foster,” Izzo said. “Foster hasn’t gotten the chance to play in games against maybe not quite the caliber of teams that he has had to play against so much here and grow. That’s my never-ending battle. What’s better? Competition. Confidence. Playing against all good teams or playing some teams that maybe you can make a mistake or two and they aren’t as costly. Learning under fire sounds good and great in theory but it’s not always as good in reality. The two things Foster needs is getting some court time and getting some practice time.”
Loyer should get plenty of both over the next few weeks. After the trip to Florida, Michigan State hosts Green Bay, Oakland and Northern Illinois before jumping back into Big Ten play after the first of the year.
That time to develop should be critical, Izzo believes.
“He’ll figure it out,” Izzo said. “I’ve been hard on him. Everybody has been hard on him. I had a good talk today with him about it that he’s the got to play not like he did in high school until he figures it out, then he’ll have more freedom. Right now, keep people in front of you, don’t make turnovers. Am I handcuffing him a little bit? Of course. But it’s so that I can get him enough minutes at that position.”
No. 10 Michigan State at Florida
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Exactech Arena/O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 7-2; Florida 5-3
Outlook: The Spartans lead the all-time series 4-3. The biggest win came in the 2000 national championship game when MSU beat Florida, 89-76, in Indianapolis. ... This is Michigan State's second visit to Florida. The sixth-ranked Gators defeated No. 24 MSU, 74-70, at home on Dec. 5, 2001. … MSU won the last meeting, 58-52, in East Lansing in 2015. … Michigan State is the third top-10 opponent to play at Florida under fourth-year coach Mike White. The Gators faced No. 9 West Virginia in 2016 and then hosted No. 8 Kentucky in 2017. Florida won both games by double digits.