Road forges impenetrable bond between Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — On Thursday afternoon, the Michigan State basketball team was going through yet another practice in a long season. It was practice No. 98, to be exact, but it was hard to tell.

There were no players dragging, no jogging up the court or looking disinterested. Instead, what has become the norm at Michigan State, practice was another chance for the Spartans to have fun on the court. It comes with plenty of hollering after good plays, razzing someone after a missed shot, hugs and screams after a big dunk.

It’s a team that doesn’t recognize the difference between a star and a walk-on.

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“If this team bonds any closer together, I don’t know what it will be,” coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve been like that almost since the start of last year.”

It’s been like that for a few years with the Spartans, a team where chemistry has been as good as the talent on the court. It’s likely taken some of those teams – the Final Four team of 2015, in particular – farther than most expected.

But this season’s team has both, the ability and the cohesion, and there’s one place it’s clear those two attributes are coming together — on the road. Unlike last season, Michigan State is proving its worth away from home, taking a 6-1 road record into Saturday’s game at Northwestern.

“We’ve really become a great road team,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “Last year, that wasn’t the case.”

A season ago, the road was a nightmare for the Spartans as they went 2-7, getting wins at Nebraska and in overtime at Minnesota.

This season, things have changed as Michigan State is often the biggest game on the schedule, no matter the opponent. That’s been obvious as the Spartans have had to knock back challenge after challenge. They had to come from behind at Maryland and Iowa while holding off a late push at Indiana.

Those games have helped the Spartans realize how far they’ve come in the last year and was at the forefront of their thoughts after Tuesday’s blowout win at Minnesota.

“It’s us going against the world,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “That’s how you want it to be. You can sense definitely a road-game presence. It’s just a whole different vibe to the game. But they don’t affect us in a negative way anymore, I would say. We kind of embrace it.”

Embracing it is important considering Michigan State will have spent the bulk of the final month of the regular season away from the Breslin Center. Five of its seven games in the month of February are on the road and only Tuesday’s game against Illinois remains at home.

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But the road offers a chance for that camaraderie to grow, and considering the distractions surrounding the program in recent weeks, it’s been almost beneficial the Spartans have been away from home more often.

“I think when you get on the road and get away from all the distractions — the girlfriends, all the things they have going on, the buddies — and you just kind of focus in on basketball, if you like each other, that’s a good thing,” Izzo said. “If you have teams that don’t get along, everybody stays in their own rooms or something like that … usually guys are running back to their rooms and getting on their phones or something.”

This team has never had any issues getting along.

“It’s that kind of team, and I think that really helps us,” Izzo said. “And yet, we’ve got some big road games left, so hopefully we’ll keep it up.”

That next big road game comes Saturday. It’s not big when comparing records, but it’s big for No. 2 Michigan State, which after Thursday finds itself tied for first place in the Big Ten after Ohio State’s loss at Penn State.

Northwestern has had its struggles this season after reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, and Izzo isn’t taking the Wildcats lightly, saying “they’re a better team than (the way) they’ve played.”

Most importantly, he doesn’t want his team taking anything for granted with just three games to play.

“I don’t want them to look ahead, I just want them to look at the next game,” Izzo said. “And yet, when I lay in bed at night do I dream of another banner going up? Damn right I do, but I’ve done that my whole life. It’s great be in a position where you have a chance.”

It sounds like the players understand that, and they’re fine with doing it in someone else’s gym.

“Being on the road in hostile environments, it doesn’t really bother us as much,” Winston said. “We know we’re not playing for anything else, we’re just playing for the people next to us.”

No. 2 Michigan State at Northwestern

Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Ill.

TV/radio: FOX/WJR 760 AM

Records: Michigan State 25-3, 13-2 Big Ten; Northwestern 15-12, 6-8

Outlook: Michigan State has won eight straight in the series, including three straight at Northwestern. The Wildcats are playing their home games off-campus this season as Welsh-Ryan Arena is renovated. … The status of Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh is unclear after he injured his shoulder in a loss Tuesday at Rutgers. … Senior guard Scottie Lindsey is leading the Wildcats in scoring at 14.6 points a game.