Spartans emerge from rugged month fortified for season
Durham, N.C. — After 22 days and more than 13,000 miles, Michigan State’s basketball journey through the month of November finally came to a close on Tuesday night.
The Spartans took on No. 5 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the fourth game against a ranked opponent and sixth against a likely NCAA Tournament team. It entered with a 4-3 record, not quite what they hoped for but still feeling pretty good about the direction it was headed.
A final-second loss to Arizona began the season followed by one-sided losses to Kentucky and Baylor, but Michigan State added wins over Wichita State and St. John’s while playing last week in the Bahamas and were far from being beaten down by the early difficulties.
“They’ve survived it, they haven’t gotten down, they haven’t hung their heads, they aren’t moping,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’re coming to meetings ready to learn, they’ve come into the walk-throughs — the few meetings and walk-throughs we could have — and have been very upbeat.”
Much of the positive feelings came after the win over Wichita State. That came after a second-half collapse against Baylor the day before and included holding off a rally from the Shockers.
“We learned we got some fighters on our team,” senior guard Eron Harris said. “We got guys that can persevere. That’s the main thing right now. We go everywhere and fight and execute our game plan. The game can get mental toward the end and that’s what we want to get better at.”
Izzo hopes the early schedule has helped his team create that mental toughness. It’s how he’s always operated and he likely isn’t changing his approach any time soon. He believes playing the best competition makes a team better in March and it has proven to be a sound approach.
What Izzo is happy to change in the future is the travel and short window in which the games were played.
“I would not change who I scheduled,” Izzo said. “The amount of time in between and the amount of distance I would change because I think it created three issues. No practice time, no film time and very little rest time. For a young team that’s not healthy. But as far as who we’re playing, this will now be the sixth NCAA opponent, in my humble opinion, that we’ll have played in the first eight games. I’m not sure that’s ever happened here, I’m not sure it’s ever happened anywhere.
“So our guys are getting more excited and realizing what they haven’t been doing and what they need to do to be successful consistently. And I think that’s gonna still benefit us. Has there been some lumps? Yeah, there has been. Has there been some tough times? Yes, there has been. But it’s been exciting to see a team bounce back, too.”
The tournament in the Bahamas was big for Lourawls Nairn. He played well, scoring a career-high 13 points against St. John’s and a career-best 12 assists in the win over Wichita State. But it was also a return home that was as meaningful to him as anything.
After visiting a school in his hometown of Nassau when the team first arrived last week, Nairn was able to take the team to his home and show him where he grew up.
“I wanted to win a championship down there, but man, it was such a blessing,” Nairn said, “something that I could look back on for the rest of my life and I definitely didn’t take it for granted, being able to play in front of my family and friends, it was awesome.
“My family has been talking about the team ever since we left, just how much they love them and how nice they were. It was a once in a lifetime thing. I got the chance to take them where I was from. Just be around my aunts, my great grandmother, my grandmother, my cousins, my younger cousins, they had a lot of fun.”
Michigan State changed its starting lineup the final two games in the Bahamas and it proved to be a good move for sophomore guard Matt McQuaid. He came off the bench in favor of freshman Joshua Langford and responded with a pair of 3-pointers against Baylor and then had three more while scoring 13 points in the win over Wichita State.
Whether that rotation sticks remains to be seen, but it’s all an effort to find the best combinations.
“McQuaid, we’re trying to work on getting him in shape, too, just for all the time he missed. It’s getting better,” Izzo said of the time McQuaid missed over the summer recovering from hernia surgery. “It’s try to put the right group together and try to get the right people coming off the bench, which is another area we have to do a better job as a staff.”