East Lansing – Tom Izzo glanced up to the rafters for just a second on Thursday evening, just after Michigan State had been through one of its toughest practices of the season.
Mired in a three-game skid that has some wondering how a team that looked nearly unbeatable during a 13-game winning streak has found itself struggling for answers on how to turn things around, Izzo made it a point to get back to the pillars of the program. To him, that means defending, rebounding and running.
Those parts of the game have dropped off in the past couple of weeks and it had Izzo thinking back to how the bulk of the championship and Final Four banners hanging in the Breslin Center got there.
It was a nostalgic moment for Izzo, especially considering it’s reunion weekend at Michigan State, when dozens of former players come back to reminisce, tell stories and even get in the ear of the current players. It’s that last part Izzo is looking forward to as No. 9 Michigan State gets set to host Minnesota at 2 p.m. on Saturday, the same day the 1979 national championship team will be honored.
Magic Johnson is expected to be at the Breslin Center, along with Gregory Kelser and the rest of the ’79 team.
“We have all the players coming back this week, Magic and the ’79 team are coming back,” Izzo said. “I can’t think of a better time having a bunch of guys come back that built my philosophy and executed it to a lot of Final Fours. This team maybe looked at it and for a while thought we could win a different way. We’ll get back to that. We have the ability to do that and we’ll do it.
“That’s the beauty of having those players coming back. Some of them have called, some are not happy either and I love that.”
Getting back any former Spartans who are currently in the NBA will be tough during the season, but most have already been active on social media talking about the weekend. From Gary Harris to Miles Bridges, the players have talked about the importance of the weekend.
It’s not lost on the current roster.
“It’s definitely fun,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “You realize how much more this is than just us and the history behind this program. These are the people that built this place and we’re continuing this legacy. That’s huge to get to see that.”
Added sophomore Xavier Tillman, “Now they’ve got some bragging rights over us losing three in row, so they’ll come in here and talk a lot of (smack). It’s fun to have all the old guys come back and hear the stories about what it used to be like and get some laughs again.”
How many laughs there will be over the current three-game slide is debatable. Few pay closer attention to what is happening with the program than those who’ve been a part of it. There’s little doubt they all understand things have changed since it was revealed Joshua Langford would miss the rest of the season.
The Spartans (18-5, 9-3 Big Ten) have lost the last two games since the news and several players admitted it’s been tough to adjust.
“Just the confidence we had winning those games and Josh was not playing, it was like he’s gonna come back and we’ll be even more deadly,” Tillman said. “It was kind of like we had confidence on a confidence. We had confidence he would come back and had confidence we were succeeding without him. We were like, ‘We’re good.’”
Of course, things haven’t been good as Michigan State is now in a third-place tie with Wisconsin and will need to get things back on track quickly.
In addition to the poor rebounding and slip in defense, the Spartans turned the ball over 24 times in the loss at Illinois after making just 8 of 22 free throws in the loss to Indiana. They’ll have to get things straightened out against a Minnesota team that has lost two in a row – at Purdue after blowing a 13-point second-half lead and at home to rival Wisconsin.
“Learn from this game and move on,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said after the loss to the Badgers. “We still have many great opportunities moving forward, some great opportunities in this building, some great opportunities on the road. We finish with a lot of tough game so we’re going to figure out what we are doing wrong, what we are doing right, and then learning and growing from it.
“I think there’s a lot of things we did well, but we’ve got to be able to be disciplined for 40 minutes, and we were pretty close today.”
A win over Minnesota (16-7, 6-6) is vital with Michigan State set to head to Wisconsin on Tuesday in a matchup that will be critical to remain in the championship hunt.
“We’ve got to find a way to remain confident and get back to what we’ve been doing,” Winston said. “You’ve seen us at our best and now you’ve seen us at our worst. We know what it takes to win on this level and we have to get back to that.”
Minnesota at No. 9 Michigan State
Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760
Records: Minnesota 16-7, 6-6 Big Ten; Michigan State 18-5, 9-3
Outlook: Tom Izzo has a 31-11 all-time record against the Golden Gophers. Three of the last five meetings have gone into overtime, including the last two at Breslin Center. … Minnesota junior guard Amir Coffey leads the team in scoring with 15.8 points per game while senior forward Jordan Murphy is second on the team with 14.9 points and leads the team and the Big Ten with 12.1 rebounds a game.