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MSU faces tall order in Big Ten opener vs. 12-1 Minnesota

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Cassius Winston's 6 assists a game leads the Big Ten.

East Lansing — Ready or not, Big Ten basketball is here, and for Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo, it’s the chance to put an inconsistent first month and a half of the season in the rearview mirror.

The Spartans (8-5) entered the season with high expectations and a brutal schedule in the first month of the season full of games against some of the top teams in the nation along with a difficult travel schedule. It had its share of ups and downs, but now it’s on to conference play with Tuesday's 9 p.m. tip-off at Minnesota.

“For the most part I am kind of looking forward to the Big Ten season starting,” Izzo said. “It gives you a chance to wipe the slate clean a little bit and hopefully learn from your mistakes. Hopefully (we) can learn from what we have been preaching and put it together on film and get a chance to look at it with our guys and hopefully are moving forward.”

It’s been difficult for Michigan State to find much consistency, in large part because of injuries. Big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter were lost just before the season began and freshman Miles Bridges has missed the last five games with an ankle injury.

In the meantime, the Spartans have counted on bigger roles for freshmen Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford while shuffling players in and out of unfamiliar positions.

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Not surprisingly, the results have been all over the map with tight games against Arizona and Duke along with a solid win over Wichita State, but also a blowout at the hands of Kentucky and a home loss to Northeastern.

Overall, however, Izzo sees things headed in the right direction and believes it can start coming together in the Big Ten.

“If I had to evaluate it — other than the loss to Northeastern, which was disappointing, even though I think they’re a good team — I think these guys have played a lot of good minutes of basketball,” Izzo said. “We just have not been able to finish games either because of poor free-throw shooting, wearing down a little bit, foul trouble, things like that, or maybe just the lack of mental toughness you need to do that. And most of that comes with experience, so I think we’re getting there.

“As disappointed as I am in the record, I’m kind of pleased that this team has managed to play a lot of good minutes in games — including games like Baylor and Duke and Northeastern. It’s just sustaining and that has been what I asked Santa to bring all of them, including myself.”

Whether it comes tonight against Minnesota remains to be seen. The Golden Gophers are off to one of the best starts in recent years and have won five straight entering Tuesday’s game.

Coach Richard Pitino has a young lineup but one that has been stingy on defense, allowing opponents to shoot just .371 from the field. Junior guard Nate Mason is averaging 13.2 points and 5.5 assists a game while freshman Amir Coffey is scoring 11.9 a game.

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“I feel like they’re much-improved for a variety of reason,” Izzo said. “Mostly a guy like Mason is a much better player than he was last year. I think the freshman Coffey is gonna be a very good player for them, a kid we recruited some. … So it’s a more experienced team, it’s a deeper team. The guards have been around a while. Inside they’ve got some very good players that now have some experience and the transfer, (Reggie) Lynch, has given them a big boost I think in a lot of respects.”

Michigan State isn’t likely to get a boost from Bridges tonight, and likely not on Friday when it hosts Northwestern. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder is making progress with his ankle injury but Izzo called his return this week “doubtful yet possible.”

As for the rest of the lineup, Izzo used a new set of starters in the win over Oakland last Wednesday. Winston and Ward started for the first time and each responded as Ward scored a career-high 25 and Winston played 30 minutes while scoring nine points and handing out eight assists.

Izzo said he’s not sure if he’ll stick with the same group, one that included Langford as well as sophomore Matt McQuaid and fifth-year senior Matt Van Dyk. There’s a chance he could put fifth-year senior Eron Harris back in as a starter, but he’s more concerned about getting consistency from his upper-classmen.

“I'm actually still tinkering,” Izzo said. “I'm trying to hold players accountable to what I think they should be able to do and yet understand that they've been through a lot — a lot more than any team I've had, in all honesty. So, I'm trying to take that into account. I'm looking at practices every day to see. Who plays the best and practices the hardest is probably going to get an opportunity. I feel like Nick and Cassius are in a spot right now where they are making progress. It's not perfect, there's some things defensively. But I do think that Langford has some moments where he's been good.

“My biggest worries right now are how we get guys like Harris going a little more consistently, and that's where I'll be tinkering a little bit with the lineups.”

Whoever starts for the Spartans, they’ll have to play at a different level now, Izzo believes.

“You could play Duke all day long and it’s still not the same usually as playing a conference game,” he said. “I don’t care who you play in the conference, it gets ratcheted up a few notches. … So, that’ll be our next adjustment for these freshmen, can they understand the difference? We’ve tried to practice that way a little bit more and we’ve tried to do what we can do. I don’t think you can ever simulate that experience.”

Michigan State at Minnesota

Tip-off: Tuesday, 9 p.m., Williams Arena, Minneapolis

TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 8-5, Minnesota 12-1

Outlook: Michigan State has won six of its last seven at Minnesota and has won 15 of the last 18 overall in the series. … Tom Izzo is 12-9 in Big Ten openers, including 5-8 on the road. This is the 11th time in the last 16 seasons that MSU has opened conference play on the road. … MSU freshman Cassius Winston has 45 assists and eight turnovers in five games during December. The point guard leads the Big Ten with six assists per game.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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