Michigan State basketball using break to bond as annual Oakland clash looms

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — By the time Michigan State takes the floor Tuesday night against Oakland at Little Caesars Arena, it will have been 10 days since the Spartans have played a game.

With final exams last week and some challenges to the nonconference scheduling this season, it left a gap that was longer than normal. Typically, the Spartans would have added a game over the weekend, but this year things didn’t fall into place and now the annual matchup with the Golden Grizzlies marks a tricky return to action for No. 12 Michigan State.

Gabe Brown, left, A.J. Hoggard and Michigan State take on Oakland on Tuesday at Little Caesars Arena.

“It’s been a great thing for us,” Izzo said of playing Oakland on an annual basis. “It’s scary when you have 10, 12 days off. It’s scary when it's after finals anytime because sometimes, physically, you're ready but mentally you're not. There's a million excuses, and if we win the game, the time off was great. If we lose the game, the time off sucked.”

It’s the same for a lot of teams this time of year and the challenge is how to navigate through a lull in the season when the games aren’t coming in quick succession and there are plenty of off-court responsibilities, from finishing the semester in the classroom to spending some time with family for the holidays.

As the Spartans (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) have navigated the down time, Izzo is doing his best to get them to dial in on some of the basics, as opposed to doing much game-planning. From the continued focus on limiting turnovers to sharpening some of the offense, there’s been plenty for Michigan State to work on over the past few days.

“This is kind of like a pro mini-camp,” Izzo said. “(We’re) working on all kinds of stuff so that we can get prepared not only for Oakland, but the Big Ten because once it starts it seems like it's every other day.

“That's the way we're gonna handle Christmas. This couple of days, then we get another break because it's Christmas, and then when we come back, it’s the same thing. We’ll work on us for a day and then we're working on High Point for two days and then get ready for the Big Ten.”

Last week closed with two practices a day on both Friday and Saturday before the Spartans planned to head to Detroit on Sunday.

The idea was for the team to take in a Pistons game Sunday evening, go to the Red Wings game Monday and play Tuesday, all while sticking together in their tight bubble in an effort to stay safe with COVID-19 surging and offering a chance at some team bonding.

“They were excited about what I said (we were going to do), and they're excited about spending two days together without a lot of obligations,” Izzo said. “There’s a lot of reasons (to do it). Some of it’s personal that I want to see other things and have other opportunities. Some of it is to spend some team time, and some of it is to stay hidden where I can be in a controlled environment with them, not because I'm worried about them doing something wrong, but worried about what's going on in the world.

“So it’s a combination of a lot of things, but all good.”

It’s something the players were looking forward to, as well.

“I want to have some fun with these guys,” senior Marcus Bingham said. “Everybody's been chilling at that their crib and outside of practice, we really don't get to see the guys as much just because of the breaks and the rest we take. But we need this time to regroup, reconnect and have some bonding time. It’s gonna be a blessing.”

Of course, when Izzo made the plan to have his team spend a few days together downtown, it was Friday afternoon. By later that day, the Red Wings game Monday against the Colorado Avalanche had been postponed because of COVID issues with the Avalanche.

It’s concerning to Izzo, who lamented the fact cancellations are starting to mount.

“I see where we’re having games now that are being canceled. Not postponed — canceled,” said Izzo, wearing a mask while talking to the media after practice. “And that’s why I’m taking them to Detroit. We can go down there, go to a Pistons game, go to a Red Wings game, we’re gonna be together in the hotel. I know what we are — we’re all vaccinated and we have the best chance to stay healthy. We’ll do our part and I hope everybody else does theirs.

“Wake up America. Let’s get after it because I want us to play all 31 games. We’re all 100% ready to go. I know that doesn’t make it 1,000% safe, but it makes us about 98%, according to my medical people.”

Izzo feels confident Michigan State and Oakland (7-3) will play Tuesday night and the time with his team will still be worth it in the long run, even if they have to make some changes along the way.

“I just think it's another team-building, bonding opportunity that we have,” Izzo said. “We were lucky enough to be able to do it and as we all know — I’ll say it ahead of time — if you don't play good or you lose, it's going to be because you went to this and that. I'm so far beyond that in my career. My guys are appreciative.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau