East Lansing — The smiles came easy Saturday night at the Breslin Center.
They were splashed across the faces in the Michigan State locker room primarily because of the 53-point blowout victory over Eastern Michigan, but there was another reason everyone was feeling especially giddy — the Spartans were about to get the next four days off.
No practice. No games. Nothing.
“I told all of them, ‘No basketball,’” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Just get away for a while and then we come back and we start grinding.”
The grind certainly begins after the first of the year when No. 15 Michigan State (9-3, 2-0 Big Ten) gets back into conference play after facing Western Michigan on Dec. 29, but some would argue the grind has been in full effect since the season began.
It’s an easy argument to make just looking at the preseason expectations combined with the loss of guard Joshua Langford only weeks before the opener. The schedule was a doozy, too, as Michigan State faced three ranked opponents in non-conference play, including one in a true road game.
All of this was happening as the Spartans and guard Cassius Winston were dealt an unimaginable blow with the death of Winston’s brother, Zachary, when the season was just one game old. Winston, remarkably, hasn’t missed a game. And while he’s still been outstanding at times, the effect his brother’s death has had is impossible to quantify.
What’s clear is that through two months the Spartans have been put through the wringer, both physically — freshman guard Rocket Watts has missed the last four games with a leg injury — and mentally.
“Never could I explain how these six, seven or eight weeks have been,” Izzo said. “I really think they all needed (the break) and I think they needed to feel good about themselves, and I think they need to get home and get away from it a little bit and get with some family.”
That time will, no doubt, be another challenge for Winston.
On Saturday night, he smiled at the idea of having some of his favorite Christmas food — “Mac and cheese, every time,” he said — and talked about getting away from the game for a minute.
“That mental break is even more important,” Winston said. “There’s a lot we’ve been going through and things like that. So to kind of get a break away from this, see family, get some gifts and some good food, things like that, then we’ll come back and regroup.”
Izzo has talked often about how Winston is coping and how the team is doing its best to support him. It hasn’t been easy, and these next few days will be the latest challenge.
“I think it's going to be a tough time for Cassius again,” Izzo said. “So I'm going to continue to work on that, but he's really figuring some things out and I think he's handled himself incredibly well the last week to week-and-a-half. We're just going to keep hoping that we can keep moving forward.”
When the Spartans do return, they’ll hope to have Watts back in the lineup and they’ll be attempting to build off two straight impressive shooting performances after struggling the first part of the season. On Saturday, they added an improved defensive effort that should bode well as the next three Big Ten games are all at home.
Before that, though, the Spartans will be happy to put basketball out of their minds.
“It's going to be huge,” Xavier Tillman said. “It’s going to be really nice to just get away from basketball and enjoy our families and rest. It's just going to be nice to refresh and want to come back to the gym instead of having to come back to the gym.”
It won’t just be for the players, either.
Izzo and his coaching staff — assistants Dwayne Stephens, Dane Fife and Mike Garland — have been in it every step, too. The stress has been painted on their faces as much as anyone’s, and they, along with their players, will be happy for the break.
“It’s been an incredible couple of months, and I think we all need to get away,” Izzo said. “But you know, players need four days off, my assistants need four days off, and not very often do I say this, but I think I could use four days off. And I even think I'll take them.”