‘Who we are’: Facing formidable foes part of MSU culture

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Miles Bridges

East Lansing – The day Michigan State starts playing a softer non-conference schedule will probably be the day Tom Izzo is no longer coaching.

From the moment Izzo took over the program 22 years ago, he’s followed one simple mantra.

“To be the best you have to play the best,” Izzo said on Monday.

He’s used it in different ways. “We’ll play anyone, anytime, anyplace,” has been a phrase Izzo has uttered many times over the years as well.

But the idea is the same. In the world of college basketball, teams need to be playing their best at the end of the season. If that means taking a few lumps early in the season, so be it.

As the 2016-17 season is set to tip off on Friday at the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu against No. 10 Arizona, the formula remains the same for No. 12 Michigan State. That’s because four days later the Spartans travel to New York to take on No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic, followed the next week by playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas in a field that includes No. 13 Louisville.

By the end of the month it’s on to Durham, N.C., and a date with No. 1 Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Just another November for the Spartans.

Michigan State’s Joshua Langford set to return

“This is what we’ve done,” Izzo said. “This is our culture, this is who we are.”

The fact Michigan State will happen to travel some 14,000 miles over a 22-day stretch makes it all the more tougher on a team that will be relying heavily on a group of freshmen to help it push for a Big Ten championship and get back to the Final Four spot it earned two seasons ago.

“I’m still looking at this as, this is what our program does, this is why the kids come here compared to some places,” Izzo said. “I think it makes us tougher both mentally and physically. I don’t think it necessarily helps us at the end of the year because we played this great schedule, I think it helps us throughout the year because I can use this as a benchmark for what we need to get better at.

Cassius Winston

“And you can’t be the best if you don’t play the best. We’ve done it, it’s worked. There’s been a couple years that it was on wavy waters and maybe this will be one of them, maybe it won’t.”

The results have been mixed over the years, not that Izzo is planning on doing things differently anytime soon.

The season it clearly did not work was in 2003-04 when the Spartans played a brutal schedule that included games against Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse before a single Big Ten game. They didn’t win one but by the end of the season, the Spartans were contending for the conference championship and only an overtime loss at home to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale kept them from a share of the title.

Trying to determine how things will work out this season could depend largely on how the freshmen progress. Forward Miles Bridges has already stood out in two preseason games, as has point guard Cassius Winston.

Center Nick Ward has shown some good things but will be a work in progress while guard Joshua Langford hasn’t played because of a sore hamstring. He’s expected to be ready to play Friday.

“I think we’re building, I think we’re getting better,” Izzo said. “I think every day Nick’s on the court he’s getting better. It’s frustrating that we’re missing two bigs. Really frustrating that Josh has been out for two weeks. I thought we’d have him back by the second exhibition game.”

Langford will be back and Izzo expects he’ll adapt quickly. Who won’t be back anytime soon are the two bigs Izzo talked about – senior Gavin Schilling and graduate transfer Ben Carter. Both suffered knee injuries in the past few weeks and both should be out an extended period.

That puts plenty of pressure on the Spartans now because the depth is not what it once was, and while the freshmen are talented, just as much will be needed from those who’ve been around, including senior guard Eron Harris and junior guard Tum Tum Nairn, as well as guard Matt McQuaid (hernia) and forward Kenny Goins (knee), a pair of sophomores who spent most of the summer healing from injuries.

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“I just don’t know how they’re gonna respond the first couple times out,” Izzo said. “We need those guys. If you remember last year, McQuaid played really well against Kansas, Kenny played very well once he got healthy. But you miss six months, you don’t know what that does to you.”

However it shakes out Izzo is confident he’ll have a better idea of what he has to work with, even after just the first two games.

“When you get to start out playing a game that has been as advertised as this one has been already (Arizona),” Izzo said, “and then you turn around and get to play in what most people are saying is one of the best nights of basketball of the whole season four days later (Kentucky), I don’t know what else a player could ask for, what else a media guy or a fan could ask for. A coach could ask for a lot more but the rest should be in hog heaven.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau