Lahaina, Hawaii — As Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman sat next to their coach Wednesday at a small dais put together downstairs at the Lahaina Civic Center, the pounding of dribbling basketballs could be heard overhead.
No. 3 Michigan State was done for the day, dispatching UCLA, 75-62, in the fifth-place game of the Maui Invitational. Up above, in the 2,400-seat arena, No. 4 Kansas was getting ready to take on Dayton for the tournament championship.
That was the game the Spartans were expecting to play in when they first landed on the island on Friday. However, a five-point loss to Virginia Tech in the opening game on Monday derailed those plans and sent the Spartans scrambling with plenty of questions.
Tom Izzo and his coaching staff holed up that night, determined to find some answers.
“I promise you, we will spend no time on the beach tonight, tomorrow or tomorrow night,” Izzo said after the loss to the Hokies. “So we're going to spend some time in that walkthrough room and we won't make those mistakes again.”
Michigan State responded by dominating Georgia for large parts of Tuesday’s game, taking a 28-point lead in the second half before holding on as Bulldogs freshman Anthony Edwards went off for 37 points, helping cut Michigan State’s lead to 2 late in the game. The Spartans held on with several players “answering the bell,” as Izzo described it.
And on Wednesday, it was a more workmanlike performance against UCLA when a slow offensive start led to a more complete second half.
Headed back to Michigan, the Spartans were disappointed they weren’t playing in the championship game, yet they still felt like they figured some things out.
“We just learned a lot about our team,” Winston said. “To come in and kind of get punched in the mouth, we haven't really had a chance to kind of respond to that that fast. We kind of usually got time to practice and go back and watch film and learn what to do to get better. This time we got punched in our mouth and then we had to play the next day. And I think we did a pretty good job of rallying and getting back out there and playing hard for the next couple days.
“So we got fight in us, we got the talent, we got the potential, it's about bringing it every day. This time we brought it two out of three days and that's something that we can fix.”
The turnaround time will be more forgiving than it has been during Michigan State’s time in Maui, but the path gets no easier. The Spartans are back on the court Tuesday when they host No. 1 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Neither team is feeling great about itself after Michigan State’s early loss in Maui and Duke's loss at home on Tuesday to Stephen F. Austin. But it’s still a marquee game, one the college basketball world will be zeroing in on.
Both teams are Final Four favorites and both will likely hover near the top of the rankings all season.
For Michigan State, the key will be taking the lessons it learned in Maui and carrying them forward.
“Bring the positive that we got out of the tournament,” Winston explained. “I feel like we did get better as a team. I feel like we did show good glimpses of what we're capable of. So just take those things, that energy we're playing like that, moving the ball, locked in on the defensive end, we play like that, we're potentially the best team in the country.
“So if we keep that energy, keep that mindset, we're going to take that approach all the way through the next game.”
There are specific things, of course, Michigan State must improve on. The big men are still missing far too many easy shots and some of the mental mistakes from inexperienced players still crop up. They’ll need to rebound better, as well as finding a way to play a full 40 minutes.
It’s the attention to detail, though, that likely will matter most.
“As a team it’s just making sure that we follow the scouting report to a T,” said Tillman, who added he’ll be spending plenty of time at the free-throw line. “Just know everybody's tendencies, so if a guy drives left, he's not going to drive left in a game. If a guy's a shooter, he's not going to get an open look in the game. So for us, I would say following the scouting report to a T.”
That usually comes with time. It has almost always been the case for Izzo’s teams, which are usually at their best late in the season. They were last year when they followed the Big Ten tournament title with a run to the Final Four.
But big-time moments in November and December matter, too.
This will be Michigan State’s chance to prove that it did grow from its trip to the Maui Invitational, even if it didn’t include a trophy.
“This is going to help us down the stretch,” Izzo said. “Everything that happened here is going to help us. I'm not big on losing helps you get better. I'm just big on playing against different competition and that's what I've tried to do.
“It was a great week for us. Our guys had a great time. It's a hard three days, three games in three days. It really is difficult. But what a better example for our players than to realize that you have to prepare until the wee hours of the night. We all got up at six this morning, another walkthrough, another film session, you know. That is a good practice for your Big Ten tournament, it's good practice for the NCAA Tournament.”
Those are two tournaments in which the Spartans don’t expect to lose the opener. That lesson was delivered this week.