Tom Izzo will never admit to getting soft in his old age.
Instead, the Michigan State coach is just trying to do his best to adjust to a new era of Big Ten basketball, one that sees teams playing on all seven days of the week with sometimes three games in a single week. That didn’t used to happen, but once the conference compressed its schedule last season, went to 20 games this season and added new television partners, things have changed.
“(Assistant coach) Doug Wojcik said to me, ‘You’re playing off of what you did for most of your career,’” Izzo said. “But most of my career, we weren’t playing seven days a week. Most of my career you would maybe have a Tuesday-Saturday, or a Wednesday-Saturday and sometimes a Thursday-Saturday. Now, playing all these days a week, I guess I have to adjust a little bit too and that’s been a challenge, to be honest with you.
“As dumb as it sounds, it’s the hardest challenge I’ve got. It’s a two-day prep and you’re on the road and you have to rest your guys here, and we’ve got to get better, and we have to get prep in. I’m not used to this.”
It’s even more critical this season for the sixth-ranked Spartans (17-2, 8-0 Big Ten) when it comes to two players, in particular — guard Cassius Winston and center Nick Ward. Both are being counted on heavily, especially with guard Joshua Langford out with an ankle injury, one that has kept him on the bench the last six games.
So, in preparation for Thursday’s game at No. 19 Iowa, Izzo decided to give his two most important players a break. Winston did not practice on Tuesday while Ward was given the same option but opted to take part, anyway.
“What impressed me is I was going to give Nick a little time off and he didn’t want any,” Izzo said. “I think he is focused in. I think he knows that he has not been running quite as hard or posting quite as deep. There were a couple of bad calls last night that weren’t his fault. I think you’re going to see him playing better.”
The bigger concern, however, has been Winston.
The junior guard has been lighting up the Big Ten, but he’s also been logging heavy minutes on a regular basis. He’s played 30 or more minutes in each of the last five games, including 35:38 in the win over Maryland on Monday.
The conference’s leading assist man who is also averaging 18 points a game and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range but has been battling some tendinitis in his right knee and then banged it on the floor in Monday’s win over Maryland.
The decision to give Winston the day off Tuesday didn’t have anything to do with his knee as Izzo said they had decided on that course of action earlier on Monday. But with Langford out and junior guard Kyle Ahrens working his way back in after missing two games, it puts more pressure on Winston. He doesn’t get much of a break since Matt McQuaid can’t slide over to the point as often with Langford and Ahrens ailing and the Spartans clearly still do not trust freshman Foster Loyer to play significant minutes.
“We’re trying to manage him on his off days a little more,” Izzo said. “But if we are going to be a great team, we are going to have to figure out how to maneuver those guys, depending on where Josh is and whether we think Kyle is going to hold up. You take two key guys that were playing 30-some minutes and 20-some minutes out, and it’s been hard to manage. Cassius is doing it. I’m trying to manage it. He’s a smart enough kid and he’s doing a pretty good job of it.
“Right now, our depth is an issue. If we could get some of that depth back I think we could run more and I think we’re lethal when we run.”
Getting that running game rolling against an Iowa team that is just as willing to run will be critical. The Hawkeyes (16-3, 5-3) have won five straight, vaulting them right back into contention in the Big Ten after many counted them out after they lost their first three conference games.
One of those games was a one-sided loss at Michigan State in early December. However, Izzo isn’t counting on an easy night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“That was, I think, 100 years ago,” Izzo said. “Maybe it was a few years less, but it sure seems like that.
“This is a different Iowa team. They were one of my picks as a sleeper team. They got everybody back. They’ve got guards, they’ve got bigs, they’ve got athletes. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to try to see if we continue to grow. When you win games on the road or play games on the road in tough environments you kind of learn a lot about a team.”
No. 6 Michigan State at No. 19 Iowa
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City, Iowa
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 17-2, 8-0 Big Ten; Iowa 16-3, 5-3
Outlook: The Hawkeyes have won five-straight and 10 of the last 11 overall since the 90-68 loss to MSU on Dec. 3. … Junior forward Tyler Cook is one of five players scoring in double figures for Iowa. ... He leads the team with 16.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. … The Hawkeyes rank second in the Big Ten in scoring offense with 82.8 points per game and are 13th in the league in scoring defense, allowing 72.2 points per game.