Michigan State's Thomas Kithier, Aaron Henry and Xavier Tillman look ahead to the Spartans' trip to the Maui Invitational. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Believe it or not, there was a time when even Tom Izzo was giddy about where Michigan State was playing.
It was 25 years ago and the Spartans were about to play their first game with Izzo as the head coach against Chaminade at the Maui Invitational.
“I was the guy that said, ‘Wow, I get to go to Maui,’” Izzo recalled late last week. “From the U.P. to Maui. That was pretty cool. And I was feeling great about that, but I don't know if I learned as much as I probably could. I was probably the kid in the candy store just looking around and seeing all this stuff. You know, I had never done anything like that.”
A quarter of a century later, Izzo is back as No. 3 Michigan State prepares to play Virginia Tech at 5 p.m. Monday in the first round of this year’s Maui Invitational at the Lahaina Civic Center. It’s the fifth time Michigan State has played in the event, and Izzo has been there for each one.
He was an assistant for Jud Heathcote when the Spartans beat Arkansas in 1991 to win the tournament, then was the head coach in 1995, 2005 and 2010 before a return this season.
“It’s still one of the great tournaments of college basketball,” Izzo said. “With the exposure and in the way everybody looks at it. It seems like a long time ago, 25 years ago that I started in this tournament, but it's another great field and it'll be a difficult task.”
The field is usually one of the best, and this year is no different. Virginia Tech, the opponent on Monday, made 21 3-pointers in a game last week while Dayton and Georgia – MSU will play one or the other on Tuesday – are unbeaten entering the week.
If the Spartans win the first two, it could set up a showdown with No. 4 Kansas in Wednesday’s championship, provided the Jayhawks get through tournament host Chaminade first and either BYU or UCLA next.
For Michigan State to get there, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman will likely carry the load while wing Aaron Henry, now 100 percent after missing the last game against Charleston Southern with a pair of sore ankles, could be ready to truly find a rhythm after a slow start to the season.
But to be truly successful, Izzo is looking for more from the entire rotation. That means seeing players like Thomas Kithier, Rocket Watts, Marcus Bingham, Gabe Brown and Malik Hall continue to progress.
“We need to continue to get contributions from Thomas, Rocket, Marcus, Gabe, Malik,” Izzo said. “Every one of them is doing something and now you look for, as a coach or I hope as a players, for some consistency. I think we've got to get a little more consistent and kind of know what we're going to get out of each guy.”
If the Spartans are finding that consistency, the goal is to win a tournament.
No, it’s not the NCAA Tournament or even the Big Ten tournament, but winning in a tournament setting has proven to be not only a sign of good things to come, but something the Spartans are accustomed to after winning the PK80 two years ago and capturing the Las Vegas Invitational last year.
“It kind of gives guys an idea of what it takes to win,” Tillman said. “I remember when we played in the PK80, as soon as the game was over, I think we relaxed for maybe like an hour or two and then we're right into film work. Right away, we’re studying the next team that we're going to play or watching the next game. So we're definitely locked in at each and every game. So it's really going to give (the young players) a chance to see what it takes to really get a championship.”
Winning is always the goal, but three games in three days is a tough schedule, and doing so 4,400 miles from home and in the heat of Hawaii is no picnic.
“I think it'll be a grind,” Izzo said. “My big worry is the trip is tough physically, but everybody goes through the same thing physically. That trip is tough mentally, because you have to learn how to prepare for one team then prepare for another team then prepare for another team. Win, lose or draw, you're gonna play three of them back-to-back-to-back. It's our mental condition right now and how we deal with things mentally when we already been under some mental strain. I'm not anxious to see it, I’m going to see it.”
Izzo is right. It has been a tough few weeks for the Spartans. They’ve all rallied around Winston has he’s tried to cope with the death of his brother, Zachary. But it’s also been tough for many of the players who were friends with Zach.
That makes this trip one in which Michigan State wants to win some games, but it’s also a chance to get away, have some fun and grow closer as a team.
“It’s gonna (provide) a lot better team bond with some different weather, for sure,” Henry said, smiling. “I’ll get some sand between my toes, hopefully, have some fun times and play in the water. I hope I have a lot of that. There isn’t much water that we get to go into, more falling on our heads.
“But it’s just gonna be a great experience as far as team bonding goes. I just can't wait to get out there and at least have a couple hours off and be a kid at one point.”
Virginia Tech vs. No. 3 Michigan State
Tip-off: 5 p.m. Monday, Lahaina Civic Center, Lahaina, Hawaii
Records: Virginia Tech 5-0; Michigan State 3-1
Outlook: Michigan State makes its return to Maui for the first time since 2010. … This is the fifth appearance in the event for the Spartans, who won the tournament title in 1991. … In its last game, Virginia Tech made 21 3-pointers in a 100-64 victory over Delaware State. … Redshirt freshman guard Landers Nolley II is scoring 20.2 points per game for the Hokies and is shooting 45.9 percent from 3-point range.