East Lansing — To say Tom Izzo is eager to get back on the court would be an understatement.
Of course, for the man who has trouble sitting down for more than a few minutes at a time, three games in three weeks would qualify as a glacially slow pace. Forget the six games Michigan State played in 17 days before the recent lull, the Spartans coach is ready to get back at it.
“I had a good Christmas,” Izzo said after the first of two practices on Thursday, “but I’m anxious to get back and really anxious to get moving now.”
For No. 8 Michigan State (10-2, 2-0), that means one more non-conference game Saturday afternoon against Northern Illinois before the quest to defend last season’s Big Ten regular-season championship resumes.
The coach and the players are champing at the bit, the urge to get back into a routine only accentuated by the recent Christmas break. It’s been a drastic change for the Spartans, who played at home just once the in the six-game stretch that began the week of Thanksgiving and ended in early December with a trip to Florida.
Since then, home games with Green Bay and Oakland were sprinkled in as final exams were completed. Then it was the holiday break. But players were back on campus Wednesday, and after Saturday’s 2 p.m. tip-off with Northern Illinois, the grind returns with Northwestern coming to the Breslin Center on Jan. 2 and a trip to Ohio State on Jan. 5. to cap the first week of the year.
“It’s been so strange that we had the six games in (17) days and then three in 21,” Izzo said. “It’s kind of bizarre the way it’s been. I want to try get into that routine and I told (the players) the same thing. We might have to come in in the morning when school starts or come in early when we have one- or two-day turnarounds. That’s what we’re looking at, and preparing all those things.”
Once the rhythm of conference play takes over the next week, the Spartans expect their offense to continue to hum the way it has through the first 12 games. Michigan State ranks first in the Big Ten scoring offense, averaging 87.6 points a game with no plans to slow things down.
The other category the Spartans have excelled in — 3-point shooting — also is expected to continue. At .399, Michigan State trails Wisconsin (.400) by one-thousandth of a percentage point. What Michigan State will focus on is making sure they don’t become reliant on the 3-pointer.
Through 12 games, Michigan State is taking 24.5 3-pointers a game, a number that’s higher than any of the past five seasons.
“There’s no question the 3-point shot is more relevant now than it was,” Izzo said. “But to live and die with the 3, I think a lot of times you die. I still think you stay to the basics and make adjustments and we’ve done that. Have we found a happy medium? I can’t say totally, yet. But we like to get 20-some 3s a game, a little more than maybe we have lately, but we don’t want to take 30-some 3s like we did in one game.”
It’s actually come in two games this season, a blowout win over Tennessee Tech when Michigan State was 14-for-33, and last week in a 30-point victory over Oakland when the Spartans were 13-for-30.
For one of Michigan State’s best shooters, the number of 3s is not usually the focus.
“We’re taught to take good shots and we don’t have any restrictions,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “You could get shot happy and we're not trying to live and die by the 3, but if you’ve got an open shot … We work hard, and we make those shots, so we’re entrusted to take them.”
Winston was especially good last season, shooting better than 52 percent in conference games. He’s taken a dip this season to 41.1 percent overall, but a lot of that is because teams are guarding him differently. It’s something he notices early in games and is able to adjust quickly.
“In the first two or three minutes you can feel how a defense is gonna play you,” Winston said. “Are they gonna double the post? Are they gonna let you penetrate? Are they gonna run you off the line? A lot of teams are running me off the line, but you’ve got to sense that early and act accordingly.”
While Winston has seen his percentage drop a small amount, it’s been offset by junior Joshua Langford, who is shooting 42.4 percent from 3-point range, as well as the fact junior big man Nick Ward is one of the most efficient low-post scorers in college basketball.
“That opens up the game because he’s such a dominant presence down there,” Winston said of Ward.
However many 3-pointers the Spartans end up taking game to game, Izzo’s focus always will come down to the same thing.
“At the end of the day for us you gotta defend and rebound the ball,” Izzo said. “What some guys do is start settling and hunting for those (3s), and that creates other problems, like not getting to the free-throw line, not rebounding as well. Those kinds of things are a problem. So, it’s finding that happy medium.”
Where Michigan State ranks in the Big Ten in offensive categories:
Scoring offense: First, 87.6 points
Scoring margin: Second, +18.5 points
Field-goal percentage: Second, 50.1
3-point FG percentage: Second, 39.9
Assist average: First, 21.0
Assist/turnover ratio: Tied for first, 1.6
Offensive rebounds: Tied for fourth, 12.3