'Big opportunity': Spartans get in Christmas spirit with holiday showdown vs. Wisconsin

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The Christmas holiday is usually about taking a break, heading home for a few days and hanging out with family.

That’s typically how this time of year goes for Michigan State’s players. The rigors of a tough non-conference season are usually behind them and the even more difficult stretch of Big Ten action lies ahead, so a quick respite comes at the perfect time.

During that break, players would usually spend Christmas Day watching games as the holiday has become a showcase for NBA games.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, right, points as he talks with forward Aaron Henry during the second half of Sunday night's loss at Northwestern.

Of course, very little is how it used to be these days, and that includes Big Ten basketball.

For the first time the Spartans will play on Christmas, and it will be a big one with No. 9 Wisconsin coming to Breslin Center for a 12:30 tip-off, the first of four conference games being played on the same day.

“It’s a big opportunity,” junior Aaron Henry said. “I've never played on Christmas before. I’m used to being at home with the family, but with everything that's happened in the past week, coming off of a loss and it’s Christmas coming up, I mean, there's no better day than this one. I'm just excited to go out there and compete.”

It’s been a whirlwind of a few days for the 12th-ranked Spartans. They were humbled in the Big Ten opener at Northwestern on Sunday, losing by 14 points in a game that their coach described as “disgusting.” They then bused home overnight to get ready to play basketball on Christmas instead of opening presents.

Still, as Henry made clear, it’s something the players are looking forward to.

“For me, it’s just a blessing,” junior Gabe Brown said. “A lot of teams don’t get to play on Christmas so for Michigan State, for the Spartans to go out there and play, compete against a great team, it’s something you could never ask for.”

Most seasons, there would be no games to be played on Christmas Day. But as Tom Izzo made clear, considering his players were going to be forced to be on campus, why not allow them to do something they love doing anyway?

So, when the Big Ten was putting together its schedule, Dec. 25 was an open date on the calendar in the world of sports. The NBA, at that point, had planned to start its season after the first of the year, making Christmas games a possibility. Izzo was among those in the conference who pushed for the game, even consulting with Michigan coach Juwan Howard, who said what a big deal Christmas Day games were for NBA players.

It all led to the push to play games on the holiday.

“We just felt that the safest, best place for them was here,” Izzo said. “And if they're going to be here, let’s do what they love to do. Let's help the mental health of everybody and do what they really love to do and that was play.”

Izzo admitted it’s tougher for he and his coaching staff, who will put time aside with their families. He said he also understood why some think teams shouldn’t play on Christmas.

Still, he believes it was all done in an effort to make the best out of a tough situation.

“We tried to do the best we could do with the cards we were dealt,” Izzo said, “and I wasn't going to leave my players in their dorms or their apartments not able to do anything. So, we fought like hell to make sure that we could do something special.”

There’s an added incentive now, too, as recent changes by the state of Michigan allowing for gatherings of up to 250 people will permit some of the players’ parents to attend the game. And Izzo said the team is working out testing for those parents so they can see their kids and spend some time with them, as well.

“There’s some parents coming for certain,” Izzo said. “We're trying to work out some testing things so that we can feel really comfortable and we think we've got all those things. … Everybody won't be coming, but there are more than a few parents that we think are coming and I think it's great.”

What those parents will see is a Michigan State team that will be desperate to put its last game in the rear view mirror. The Spartans (6-1, 0-1 Big Ten) were awful in that game, namely on the defensive end as Northwestern scored more than 1.2 points per possession.

Getting that turned around will be difficult against Wisconsin. The Badgers (7-1, 1-0) are one of the most efficient teams in the country and happened to be one of the most experienced as well, with a starting five full of seniors, four of whom are averaging in double figures.

And if Michigan State expects to contend for a fourth straight Big Ten title, it knows the effort has to be ramped up, something the Spartans focused on a lot the last few days.

“From a leadership standpoint, just trying to get guys to understand that to win a Big Ten Conference and what it means and what it takes,” Henry said of the push in practice. “Some of the guys on the team have done that before, but with the conference being that much stronger than I feel like ever before, it’s going to take new levels from everybody, a new level of focus and intensity. Everybody just has to take it up a notch and that's what we tried to bring in the last couple days of practice.”

No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 12 Michigan State

Tip-off: 12:30 p.m. Friday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: Fox/WJR 760

Records: Wisconsin 7-1, 1-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 6-1, 0-1

Outlook: Michigan State had won eight in a row in the series before a one-point loss last February in Madison. … Wisconsin ranks 10th in the nation, shooting 41.8% from 3-point range, averaging 9.3 makes per game. … The Badgers lead the Big Ten shooting 77.1% from the free-throw line. … Wisconsin  leads the conference and is 14th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 57.5 points a game.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau