Tom Izzo, talented Michigan State 'excited' to get the ball rolling
Time was winding down on Tom Izzo’s virtual press conference Wednesday, the same day Michigan State began its first day of official practice for the upcoming season.
For more than 35 minutes, the Spartans coach entering his 26th season, rattled through all the typical question marks facing a college basketball team. For Michigan State, the biggest is replacing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman while the health of Joshua Langford and the development of sophomore Rocket Watts at point guard are high on the list, too.
As Izzo wrapped things up, he pulled a facemask out of his pocket.
“All right gang, I’m gonna mask up and get out,” Izzo said.
It was just another stark reminder of how much things have changed since the last time Michigan State stepped on the court. That was back in early March, of course. The Spartans had just beaten Ohio State in the regular-season finale to wrap up a share of their third straight Big Ten championship and were getting ready to head to the postseason playing as well as they had at any point. Confidence was high that Winston was on the verge leading MSU back to a second straight Final Four with hopes of bringing home a national title.
Of course, days later, everything ended as seasons were shut down in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, some seven months later, expectations might be tempered just a bit — though don’t tell that to Izzo. Winston and Tillman are preparing for a delayed NBA Draft and the pandemic remains. The season itself is scheduled to start roughly three weeks later than intended, though when and where that is remains unclear.
And as important as figuring out starting lineups and rotations is to Izzo and his staff, dealing with the reality of a world changed dramatically by the coronavirus is ever present. One thought is on playing time at center and the next is on making sure players are following proper safety protocols in the practice facility and at home.
From masks to testing to doing their best to isolate from those outside of the program, the Spartans are in a constant battle to make sure they have a season, one they’re all eager to play.
“Saying we’re excited would be an understatement,” Izzo said. “It’s been an incredible seven months for all of us, not just our team but our country in general and there's been a lot that's gone on. But I think when you start the season it's an excellent chance to start moving forward.”
It hasn’t been easy. Izzo admitted “we had a couple of cases and that set us back a little bit,” but over the past couple of weeks, the team has been COVID-free. With the return of a more regular practice schedule, it will allow the Spartans to do their best to put the focus on the court.
Of course, that only happens if they remain diligent.
“We’re making some progress and we’re looking forward to trying to get back to some normalcy is, I guess, the best way to put it,” Izzo said. “In doing that, I think we have to understand and we will, that it's going to be our obligation to take care of ourselves the best we can. And that doesn't give you 100% that everything will be all right, but it gives you the best chance. So we’ll be masking up a lot, we’ll be trying to take care of ourselves as best we can.
“But I think our university and the Big Ten, in general, have done an incredible job of trying to deal with this and give us the best chance to be successful.”
With six weeks until any games are even allowed to be played, it’s difficult to be certain what the Spartans, or any other team around the country for that matter, is working toward. No schedules have been released and they likely won’t for another week or two.
Izzo said the only thing close to certain on the schedule is playing Duke in the Champions Classic, and event that will likely take place in Orlando in early December. The Spartans could spend extended time there as the Orlando Invitational, a multi-team event Michigan State is scheduled to play in, will reportedly run at the same venue the weekend prior.
Beyond that, it’s hard to place a solid bet on what the season — one that will be 27 games — is going to look like.
“The unknown is a little more difficult,” Izzo said. “There's a lot of gray area and makes it hard on everybody. But for a player, we're just trying to tell them to get as good as you can get. Because no matter who we play, we've got to have our offense in, we’ve got to have our defense in, we’ve got to have our out-of-bounds plays. It really doesn't matter.
“It’s not as much to look forward to and we’ve got six weeks, which is a long time with no exhibition games. So I think coaches are going to really have to balance what we do and players are gonna have to balance. But the nice thing that I've learned through this pandemic is when we're allowed to get the players back in the gym, that's their safe haven, that's their place.”
When the Spartans are on the court, there will be a different feel, to be sure. Replacing Winston will almost be a committee approach in terms of who is facilitating the offense. Watts will make the shift from shooting guard to point guard while junior Foster Loyer drew raves from Izzo for his progress in the offseason. Freshman A.J. Hoggard will also get some time and Izzo said Loyer and Watts will be on the court together, as well.
Much of that depends on the health of Langford, who has missed most of the last two seasons. His progress this season has been way ahead of a year ago and Izzo and Langford have decided not to hold back.
“We made a decision, Josh and I together, that what's meant to be is meant to be,” Izzo said. “We’re going to be smart, but we're also not going to baby anything because he wants to have a year and that's why he came back. We’re gonna go for it.”
Big things are also expected of junior Aaron Henry on the wing and former transfer Joey Hauser at the four. Sophomore Malik Hall and junior Gabe Brown will also see heavy minutes, leaving most of the remaining questions at center. Juniors Thomas Kithier and Marcus Bingham as well as sophomore Julius Marble and freshman Mady Sissoko are in the mix, but making up for the loss of Tillman is a tough ask.
Tillman’s absence, Izzo said, is like “losing … kind of a coach on the floor.”
The Spartans hope to have it all sorted out over the next few weeks. They’ll get some answers on their schedule and they hope to have some answers on their rotation. Whatever it ends up being, Wednesday was the start, one Izzo is glad is finally here.
“Today is about the excitement of starting,” Izzo said. “There's no Midnight Madness. We can’t have fans in the stands, can't have media, hell, we can barely have coaches, but we're getting it done. And I know the players are excited started today, but no more excited than I am to start my 26th season here at Michigan State.”