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'We're raring to go': Despite two more positive tests, MSU planning to play at Rutgers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Michigan State’s battle with COVID-19 continued this week, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for the Spartans.

Coach Tom Izzo confirmed on Tuesday that junior Gabe Brown became the latest Spartan player to test positive for the coronavirus late last week while associate head coach Dane Fife tested positive on Monday.

However, Michigan State was able to conduct its first standard team practice since Jan. 13 on Monday and is planning to make the trip to Rutgers for a scheduled 7 p.m. tip-off on Thursday.

“We’re going to show up, we're going to have a team,” said Izzo, who confirmed he has communicated with Rutgers and the Scarlet Knights are expecting to play. “No matter who's playing, we're going to be there. I think the guys are excited about the opportunity to play, to be honest with you, and hopefully that's going to help us.”

The latest positive results come as part of a small outbreak that began two days after a loss at home to Purdue on Jan. 8. Freshman Mady Sissoko tested positive on Jan. 10 followed by a positive test for sophomore Steven Izzo a day later. Senior Joshua Langford tested positive on Jan. 13, just before Michigan State was set to depart for its scheduled game at Iowa on Jan. 14.

Gabe Brown (44) is the latest Michigan State player to test positive for COVID-19 this season.

That game was postponed, as well as the scheduled game with Indiana on Jan. 17. After another group of positive tests on Jan. 18 — this time to freshman Davis Smith as well as strength coach Marshall Repp and graduate assistant Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. — the matchup with Illinois scheduled for Jan. 23 was also called off.

But now, even as Michigan State deals with more positive results, it feels like it’s in position to move forward as 13 of the 15 players have tested positive since the start of the school year while Tom Izzo, Fife and three more staff members have also tested positive. Izzo tested positive in November and was cleared to return just before the season opener on Nov. 25.

“We’ve been in contact with Rutgers and, obviously, you seen how fast things can change, but we're raring to go, ready to go,” Izzo said. “We have a large number of players now that have had it throughout the school year and are prepared to play on Thursday. Everything's a go for us on Thursday. Rutgers is prepared for us to play Thursday, and hopefully we'll get some people back as time marches on.”

Who is back for Michigan State (8-4, 2-4 Big Ten) on Thursday and who will be ready to play is a difficult question to answer.

Sissoko will be available, but Izzo admitted there’s no guarantee he’ll play as he’s only been back to physical activity for a few days.

“There’s going to be a curve of getting back in shape, getting back accustomed to catching a ball and doing some things,” Izzo said. “He’ll be able to play. Whether he'll play or not, I don't know. I might know a little bit more after (Wednesday) because you'll have (Tuesday) to practice and (Wednesday).”

Determining whether Steven Izzo or Langford could be available is tougher. Players who test positive are required to isolate for 10 days and cannot return to game action for 17 days and only after passing a heart screening. The reason it becomes difficult is because the number of days begins from the time the player had symptoms, and while Steven Izzo tested positive on Jan. 11 and Langford on Jan. 13, that’s not a definitive sign of the onset of symptoms.

While Steven Izzo isn’t a rotational player, getting Langford back would be critical, though it seems more likely he could return on Sunday when Michigan State is scheduled to play at Ohio State.

“I expect to have 11 or 12 players available,” Izzo said. “We think Steven and Josh should be eligible on that day for their first day of competition. They've been able to be in the protocol now that they've had their heart test. So they're in the workout part of it today, (Wednesday), and then the 17th day I think would be on the game day. So, there's a chance. I don't know if they'll play, but there's a chance that they could be in there in spots for a little bit.

“I'm going with the players that I had in practice (Monday) that are full-go, and anybody I get above that is going to be bonus material for me.”

As for Fife, he told The News in a text message on Tuesday that he was feeling only minor symptoms. He’ll be forced to isolate for 10 days before returning to work. Aside from Izzo, Fife is the first member of the full-time coaching staff to test positive, though at least four other members of the basketball staff have tested positive, including Nairn and Repp.

With Michigan State getting close to getting back to game action, Izzo said his players are ready to return to the court.

“The players deserve a lot of credit,” Izzo said. “They all want to play. My guys would play four-on-five. They said, if we have four guys left, we're gonna play. OK, great. Let's go play. So, I have a lot of respect for them on that and I think they've handled the protocol about is as good as you can handle it.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau