East Lansing — The Big Ten wanted its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden this season.
Really, commissioner Jim Delany wanted it there in an effort to expand the footprint of the conference. Following the admission of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, that was one of the goals. To that end, the conference tournament headed east for Washington D.C. last year and moves to New York this season.
The only issue is that the Garden hosts the Big East tournament every year at the same time as the Big Ten tournament. So, to make it work, the Big Ten is going a week early.
What might have been fine, in theory, has created a condensed schedule that has teams playing some rough stretches. No. 4 Michigan State just completed its toughest, playing five games in 12 days. It nearly bit the Spartans on Tuesday in Iowa as they had to rally to beat the Hawkeyes, something they also had to do during the same stretch against Maryland and Penn State.
So, when the Spartans got home in the wee hours of Wednesday morning there was a directive from coach Tom Izzo — everyone was taking a day off. Players. Coaches. Everybody needed a break.
They needed it to dial in for the final push of the regular season that gets ramped up Saturday afternoon when No. 3 Purdue visits the Breslin Center for a 4 p.m. tip-off.
“I kicked even my staff out of there yesterday afternoon and didn’t want anybody working nights,” Izzo said after practice on Thursday. “I think everybody needed to get refreshed a little bit. It was a brutal 12 days.”
It was welcomed from the players.
“Yeah, it did (help),” said Miles Bridges, who is averaging better than 31 minutes played a game. “We got time to shut it down mentally and physically.”
It’s that mental part that might be as important as anything, especially for a team that relies heavily on youth with sophomores and freshmen playing key roles. The season is a grind, even more so this year, so any chance to take a step back can be good, because it likely won’t come again.
“It was definitely a long stretch,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “We played a lot of games, had a lot of practices. The day off kinda got our legs fresh and now we’re ready to focus and ready to go.”
The Spartans (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten) will be getting ready for what might be the biggest game of the regular season. Purdue’s loss to Ohio State on Wednesday has left the door open in the Big Ten race. Throw in the tournament seeding ramifications and the fact this will be the second top-five matchup at home this season — then-No. 3 Michigan State beat then-No. 5 Notre Dame at the end of November — and there’s no doubt the building will be buzzing.
It’s part of why Izzo wanted everyone to take a break, but he also understands his players know what’s next. In an effort to prepare them, he’ll have several former players address them before Saturday, something that is easier to do as it will be the program’s reunion weekend.
“Look, they’re not stupid,” Izzo said. “They know what big games are and even though the young guys don’t as much, this is where we’ve got a couple guys that have been to Final Fours talk to them. We’ll try to bring in a couple guys tomorrow who are coming back. We’ll have guys talk to them because it’s always better them talking to them than the coach talking to them.”
Faith in new AD
Izzo was asked Thursday about the recent appointment of Bill Beekman as the interim athletic director. He said he knows Beekman, though not well.
“Like everybody when new people come in, I want to get to know him,” Izzo said. “When I get to know him better I’ll have a better comment for you than right now.”
It will, no doubt, be an adjustment for Izzo, who counted former AD Mark Hollis as a close friend. It’s that relationship — the friendship — that Izzo leaned on during the season.
However, he also has faith the athletic department will be adjust and be fine.
“It’s not like there’s a void,” Izzo said. “(Deputy AD) Greg Ianni and, in all honesty, (Associate AD) Jennifer Smith was over today. Those people are gonna be as solid as a rock and Mark had been gone a decent amount the last couple years because of the basketball committee. So, I don’t see that as any factor right now, especially down the stretch.”