Michigan State's focus this week: 'We're gonna get better'
East Lansing — Cassius Winston paused for a moment, thought about what he would say then broke into a big smile.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “We definitely love this time of year.”
What’s not to love for a college student, after all? Finals were finished late last week and now it’s time for some time off with Christmas coming next week.
However, the break in classes has one person making grand plans. That person, of course, is Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. And for the 10th-ranked Spartans, that means the next four days before taking the court again on Friday against Oakland will be no walk in the park.
“For me, it is the greatest time of year,” Izzo said on Sunday after Michigan State’s win over Green Bay. “It’s not because it’s Christmas. There’s no school, there’s no finals, there’s no excuses. Most of the girlfriends are gone. Most of their buddies are gone. We get four days to practice with no rules, no anything.
“So, we’re gonna practice. We’re gonna do the opposite of my fellow Hall of Famer, Allen Iverson. We’re gonna practice, we’re gonna practice and we’re gonna practice. We’re gonna get better because this team has a chance to get better.”
The Spartans (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have been pretty good through the first month and a half, but like Sunday in the victory over Green Bay, it wasn’t the complete game Michigan State is looking for.
A 34-point lead began to dwindle as some of the same issues began to surface, namely turnovers. The Spartans finished with 14 and are averaging 13.3 a game this season while ranking last in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They’re also just 10th in scoring defense.
“I think getting Matt (McQuaid) back is going to help,” Izzo said. “We've got to keep running. We got up 75 shots (against Green Bay) and we still had 14 turnovers. To me, that was good. If we can get the shots up near 70, we'll keep everybody happy. The minute we have one guy move up, when are we going to have all five? Kenny (Goins) really struggled in that first half, and he's been so good. So, we're just looking to get more consistent.”
Consistency has been the focus since the season began, and it’s easy to see why. While the deficiencies have been clear through 11 games, so have the many highlights.
Michigan State is No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring at 86.5 points a game while also ranking as the best field-goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot 37.2 percent. The Spartans also lead the conference in blocked shots (5.5 per game) and assists (20.5) while they rank second in 3-point shooting (39.5 percent) and rebounding margin (+12).
So, the next four days — most which could include two practices a day — will be an effort to continue perfecting what has gone well while working on the little things that have kept the Spartans from that complete game.
“It’s good,” Winston said, admitting his coach was right about the practice time. “It’s a chance to lock in, get better, refresh our legs and stuff. It’s time for young guys to take a huge step this time, getting more reps, more time on the court. It’s an opportunity to become a better team and that’s huge.”
One way for Michigan State to get better will be the continued development of the freshmen. All five played in the win over Green Bay, but getting consistent production from Aaron Henry and Foster Loyer will be the biggest key. Anything from Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier will be a bonus.
And now that the first-year guys have made it through the semester, they’ll have some time to focus solely on basketball.
“I do think that we got some things out of them,” Izzo said. “It was nice to see Foster make his free throws and make some shots. Gabe made some shots. I thought that Aaron did do a good job and getting Marcus in there and getting them a few more minutes.
“We got something out of it and we got better. Finals week isn't a good time to get better, especially for those freshmen. They come in and it is hard. … I know the feeling and I know what they went through and it's a tough week for them.”