Tom Izzo, Michigan State open Battle 4 Atlantis vs. Drew Valentine-led Loyola Chicago
These aren’t exactly the games Tom Izzo loves to play.
He’s done it plenty over the years, but any time the Hall of Fame coach squares off against one of his former assistants, it’s always a mixed bag of feelings for the Michigan State boss.
He’ll have to wrestle with those emotions once more Wednesday when Michigan State takes on Loyola Chicago in the opening game of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Ramblers are led by first-year coach Drew Valentine, a former graduate assistant with the Spartans and the brother of former Michigan State standout Denzel Valentine.
“I don't like playing my assistants but I'm proud to play them,” said Izzo, who faced former assistant Stan Heath in Saturday’s win over Eastern Michigan. “It’s almost an honor. … I'm always pulling for guys to live their dream like I got to live mine. Stan's done some incredible things and now Drew is just starting out and it's a pretty big job to start out with. When you go to a Final Four and a Sweet 16 in a couple-year period, expectations are pretty high
“So I pull for these guys that win every game except the one I'm playing in.”
Izzo’s right about the expectations for the Ramblers (4-0). Valentine was an assistant as Loyola marched to the 2018 Final Four and is leading a veteran team that is off to a quick start this season. The Ramblers have averaged 91 points through the first four games and are lighting it up from 3-point range, shooting better than 45%.
In the season-opening win over Coppin State, Loyola hit a school-record 20 triples and over four games, five players are shooting 40% or better from 3-point range.
More: Michigan tumbles in Associated Press Top 25; Michigan State remains unranked
Add in the fact three of Loyola’s top five scorers are graduate players, or “super seniors,” while the other two are a senior and a fourth-year junior, and nothing likely will rattle the Ramblers.
“I think (Valentine has) done a great job,” Izzo said. “I think they've got some players that can put the ball in the basket, but the best thing they've got is experience. I mean, they've got fifth- and sixth-year players. And that experience is going to be, I think, a real plus for him, not only against us, but in the games to come.”
What Izzo is focused on, of course, is the game he and the Spartans will have to play early in the day as the teams tip off at noon Wednesday of the three-day tournament. A win would have Michigan State facing the winner of Auburn-Connecticut on Thursday while the Friday game would be against a team from the other side of the bracket, including defending national champion Baylor, Syracuse, Arizona State and Virginia Commonwealth.
Whether Michigan State will be at full strength for the tournament is at least a bit of a question. Senior forward Joey Hauser did not play in the win over Eastern Michigan because of a sore calf, a move Izzo said was precautionary.
Hauser was limited in practiced Sunday before the team left and Izzo is hoping Hauser will be able to make through three games in three days.
“It is strictly precautionary on my part,” Izzo explained. “If we were playing a Big Ten game last night he would have played, but these are injuries that can linger.
“But I think he's an experienced guy. I think he started to feel really good and he just told me … that he's feeling a lot better, and not that it was anything real bad, it was a strain. It’s just that like a hamstring or a groin, the calf can be something that lingers on and we just wanted to make sure that didn't happen.”
Aside from Hauser, Izzo wants to see his team’s 3-point defense improve while hoping they start shooting the ball better, something he admits is perplexing at this early point.
He’s also hoping these three days are good prep for the end of the season when the games really matter.
“It’s great preparation for an NCAA Tournament when sometimes you have to learn how to change gears and go from a team that might be a 3-point shooting team, one might be a pressing team, one might be a very athletic, big team,” Izzo said. “So there's different things you go through.
“We’re looking at this one game at a time. Who knows who will win the first one and then we play the winner of UConn and Auburn, and it's anybody's guess. Everybody tells me that UConn is one of the best teams there, them and Baylor.”
BATTLE 4 ATLANTIS
Loyola Chicago vs. Michigan State
► Tip-off: Noon Wednesday, Imperial Arena, Nassau, Bahamas
► TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
► Records: Loyola Chicago 4-0; Michigan State 3-1
► Outlook: The first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Spartans face the Ramblers for the first time since 2014. … Loyola is coached by former MSU graduate assistant Drew Valentine. … This is Michigan State’s second appearance in the Battle 4 Atlantis.