Tom Izzo on 4-4 Spartans: 'I got great guys'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Before Michigan State embarked on the first eight games of the season that included matchups with some of the best teams in the country, coach Tom Izzo wondered what he had.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo  talks with Miles Bridges.

He wondered how good the Spartans were, or more importantly, how good he believed they could be. To him, there was no better way to judge that than by playing the likes of Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor and Duke in a roughly three-week stretch.

After Tuesday’s 78-69 loss to the Blue Devils in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Izzo is still a little unsure of what direction this season will take, but he’s at least certain there’s a chance this Michigan State team has a high ceiling.

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“I got great guys. I got great guys,” Izzo said when asked what he’s learned so far this season. “I gotta do a better job coaching them. I gotta take more time to do more in practice and get some things set up a little better. And I think we have a chance to get a lot better. We’re always gonna be a foul out of a big away from being in trouble. We understand that now, but we’ve got a chance to get a lot better. I haven’t had enough practice, so I don’t know where they are physically and we’ll find out the next two weeks.”

Michigan State (4-4) will get that chance as the next five games are at home, including seven of the next eight and each comes against a team the Spartans will likely be favored against.

There are plenty of things the Spartans can work on, including taking care of the basketball, finding some consistency on offense and getting more out of freshman Miles Bridges and senior Eron Harris.

What the upcoming stretch will also do is, if it plays out as it should, give the Spartans some confidence. It can slip away quickly when a team comes up short in each of its marquee matchups, and Michigan State is fully aware.

“It’s frustrating we didn’t win any of these games because we needed one to get back in the Top 25 or in the tournament,” Bridges said. “It’s time to bust down and win a lot of games in Big Ten play.”

Five more nonconference games are up before any Big Ten matchups and worrying about tournament placing or seeding in December is a tad early. But Bridges understands as well as anyone that things have to get better.

He was just 4-for-13 against Duke, and much like his struggles against Kentucky a couple of weeks ago, the freshman had a hard time when the Blue Devils focused their defense on slowing the 6-foot-7 forward.

“Yeah, it’s hard because I’m not used to getting denied all the time, fronted,” Bridges said. “So I gotta get used to it. That comes with playing in college.”

He could also use some help. Harris has had his moments and played well at Duke, but he’s had some poor games as well. The Spartans will also need to see freshman Nick Ward continue to develop in the post and hope freshman guard Joshua Langford starts to take more steps in the right direction.

Taking care of the basketball is probably at the top of the list at this point, however, after Michigan State gave it away 18 times against Duke with point guards Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn and Cassius Winston combining for five turnovers.

“We gotta get Cassius and Tum to play a little better,” Izzo said. “We can’t have five, six turnovers between our point guards. We keep a stat — how many are forced and how many are unforced and we’ve had a lot of them that have been unforced. That’s not a good stat.”

But even with the difficulties Michigan State has had, Izzo sees progress. He believes his team should have beaten Arizona instead of lose at the buzzer and believes they competed hard in the other losses, save some second-half minutes in the Kentucky and Baylor losses.

“Make no mistake, we got better tonight. We got a lot better tonight,” Izzo said following the Duke loss, his 10th in 11 meetings with the Blue Devils. “We compete and played well enough to be up at halftime I thought. We had a couple missed shots, a couple bad turnovers. Those turnovers that lead to layups have been a problem. But they’re going to continue to be a problem until we get more disciplined with the ball. There’s too much AAU ball out there and not enough college ball.”

Oral Roberts is next for Michigan State on Saturday followed by Youngstown State and Tennessee Tech next week. After that its Northeastern and Oakland that visit East Lansing before Big Ten play begins at Minnesota.

Izzo believes that could be a stretch of drastic improvement for the Spartans.

“I think we're a lot better than we were against Arizona,” he said. “I know this, I think we have a couple of guys that play hard that didn’t play as hard (against Duke). For whatever reason that is, that’s what we have to evaluate.

“We’ve been through the gauntlet, no question about it. But we competed to the end other than that two-minute stretch. So I’m gonna build on this, no question.”