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Michigan State basketball works to hammer out schedule, starting lineup

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

As the start of the college basketball season gets closer and closer, nailing down many specifics as to what that season might look like is getting tougher and tougher.

While tournaments are getting moved and canceled and conferences are attempting to get on the same page when it comes to COVID-19 testing and safety protocols, teams continue to practice toward uncertainty. That’s exactly what Michigan State is dealing with two weeks into practice, but as some expected events are getting scratched, some interesting opportunities could be coming.

Aaron Henry is one of only two players Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo says is guaranteed to start.

“Things are changing every day,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on Thursday. “We're hoping in the next few days we're going to have it pretty much locked down, but it could be one of those schedules that's changing as we go, believe it or not, other than the conference games. We just want to do everything we can do to get a full season in.”

Michigan State was scheduled to play in the Orlando Invitational, a multi-team event, as well as the Champions Classic. Both events were part of ESPN’s family of tournaments and the plan was to play them in an Orlando bubble, beginning Thanksgiving week.

However, that plan has been scrapped and now teams are back to the drawing board, in some ways. Michigan State still expects to play Duke in the Champions Classic, though nothing concrete has been announced, but the rest of the non-conference schedule is in flux.

For the Spartans, that means being open to all sorts of options, including possibly rekindling old rivalries like Notre Dame while also being open to playing other Division I schools in the state like Oakland, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan.

“We’re working with Notre Dame, we’re working with some other MTE’s,” Izzo said. “There's a big question of whether you can play in an MTE right now in the Big Ten, just because of the testing procedures and so those are some of the question marks out there.

“We are trying to look at, can we schedule a few more games semi-locally, which around here would be Eastern, Western, Central, Oakland, Notre Dame? You know, teams that are in a couple-hour radius from here so that you can travel by bus, both for cost reasons and for not having to fly as much.”

There’s multiple reasons the nonconference schedule is so up in the air. The fact each conference has different testing protocols is chief among them, and that particular issue is why it’s unclear if Michigan State will be able to play in a multi-team event.

The Big Ten currently makes any player sit out for 21 days after a positive test, a guideline that goes further than other conferences.

“You’ve got to be very careful in your scheduling,” Izzo said.

Whether Michigan State plays in a multi-team event will determine how many nonconference games it has to schedule. Teams are allowed to play 25 total games, or 27 if they’re part of an MTE. With the Big Ten planning to play its standard 20-game schedule, that leaves either five or seven nonconference games.

Taking on Duke in the Champions Classic would be one and Izzo said Thursday there’s a chance Michigan State will be playing Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Michigan State also has an agreement to play Oakland, a game it will try and find a spot for, leaving either two or four more games to schedule.

“We know we're playing Duke,” Izzo said, “and we know if we’re playing Virginia, now you’ve got your anchors. You know your anchors and then you're gonna fill in, and that's kind of the way it's gonna look.”

When Michigan State does finally play, it will be interesting to see a starting lineup and rotation as the Spartans attempt to make up for the loss of point guard Cassius Winston and center Xavier Tillman.

Izzo said wing Aaron Henry and forward Joey Hauser are the only certain starters right now, with a large group of players fighting it out at the other spots. Sophomore Rocket Watts and junior Foster Loyer are both playing point guard, senior Joshua Langford and junior Gabe Brown are the main shooting guards and junior Marcus Bingham and sophomore Julius Marble are battling it out at center.

Of course, Izzo also said sophomore forward Malik Hall is playing well and is in the rotation with a chance to start, while junior forward Thomas Kithier has been the Spartans’ most solid player. And you have to figure the two freshmen — center Mady Sissoko and guard AJ Hoggard — will see the floor.

“I've switched the lineup every two days to try to see who plays well together,” Izzo said.

He has plenty of time. With the season able to begin on Nov. 25 and no exhibitions allowed, it’s all practice time until then. Michigan State doesn’t know who it will play or when it will play, and that makes the practices start to seem endless, at times.

“It’s been frustrating for us,” Izzo said. “We’re practicing and we can’t even say ‘We’re opening with so-and-so, we’re doing this the first week.’ That’s been a little challenging, to say the least.”

Sooner or later, though, the Spartans will get on the court.

“I know this,” Izzo said. “At the end of the day, someone's gonna want to play us. … we’ll get teams to play.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau