East Lansing — While Michigan State spent the first month of the season bouncing around the country, things are slowing down, and that couldn’t come at a better time.
With just two games over the next two weeks, the Spartans are looking forward to some down time. Not because they’re going to take a break, but, more importantly, they’re going to start putting in work on themselves instead of just preparing for the next game.
“We’ve just got to get better on both sides of the ball,” sophomore Aaron Henry said. “It’s gonna be easy with the time we have now with school about to be out. We have finals this week but once finals are over, you know how coach goes, it’s gonna be all practice and not many games. We’ve just got to be locked in, but we’re gonna get better from it, so I’m looking forward to it."
No. 16 Michigan State (6-3, 1-0 Big Ten) played the conference opener at home Sunday against Rutgers and won’t hit the court again until it faces Oakland at noon on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. Two more games come the following week — including a conference game at Northwestern — before an eight-day break in between the final non-conference games of the season against Eastern Michigan on Dec. 21 and Western Michigan on Dec. 29.
Mixed in will be plenty of time practicing as Michigan State looks to shore up some defensive inefficiencies while working on becoming a more consistent shooting team.
Through nine games, the Spartans are the No. 1 offensive team in the nation according to the analytics at Kenpom.com, however, they are shooting only 33 percent from 3-point range.
“It’s definitely more of a mental thing,” senior guard Cassius Winston said. “We’ve got to lock in in the gym and shoot game-time shots. You’ve got to put yourself in those game-time situations and you’ve got to learn how to play. It’s kind of easy to shoot when you’re shooting time after time after time. But it’s different when you shoot eight shots a game and they come every eight minutes or something like that. You gotta get the reps up.”
Winston is averaging 17.8 points a game, third-best in the Big Ten, but he’s shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range and isn’t getting much help from his teammates, allowing teams to sell out to limit Winston and make it tougher for him to score.
“I’m disappointed that we're shooting that poorly, because I don't think we're that poor of a shooting team,” coach Tom Izzo said after the Rutgers game. “We found a way to average 80 points a game, and then there's games like this sometimes. If you ever get to the tournament, any kind of tournament, they're all going to be grinding games. I guess we're getting some practice on that.”
For the grinding to go well, the Spartans will need to tighten things up defensively. They’re allowing opponents 67.2 points a game, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten.
“We definitely have to shore up some things,” Winston said. “Get the offense moving more fluently, figure out what do on defense and stay solid.
"We’ve got time to practice and get better.”
Getting healthy is also a key component over the next few weeks. Freshman guard Rocket Watts sat out Sunday’s victory over Rutgers because of a stress reaction in his left leg and his status is questionable for the Oakland game. Freshman Julius Marble was in uniform but did not play after being limited in practice during the week.
While getting Watts back will be critical, Marble is a player that Izzo believes could start getting more of an opportunity as the power forward position continues to be a question mark for the Spartans.
“We are going to get some time,” Izzo said. “We need some time to just kind of gather ourselves. The travel and all the other excuses has caused us so that we couldn't practice. We've got to make some subs, and we're going to have to just keep getting more physical. Don't be surprised if you see Julius playing some. I need more physicality.
“This is going to be an important time. … Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we’ll try to get some real practice in then play the game on Saturday. (With school out) it gives you where you could have two-a-days or something. Not the grind, but maybe two to work on things that you just don't get a chance to work on.”