Izzo hopes a little added rest will pay dividends at Penn State
Tom Izzo joked about it, but he may already be acknowledging the potential detriments of an 20-game conference schedule - or at least the importance of loading up on rest ahead of the grind to come.
Izzo gave his team two days off from practice this week - one was required by NCAA rules, the other was because he felt they needed a longer break, heading into the ground of his team’s Big Ten schedule that will see the No. 6 Spartans (14-2, 5-0 Big Ten) play four of their next five games away from Breslin Center.
That stretch, which will include trips to Nebraska, Iowa and Purdue, begins Sunday at 4:30 p.m. (CBS) when the Spartans visit Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa., to face upset-minded Penn State (7-9, 0-5).
“We have some guys that are a little run down right now so we want to make sure we’re fresh for these four games out of five on the road and the tough stretch we’re in,” Izzo said on Thursday. “So I weak-kneed it and gave them an extra day off (from practice).”
Izzo put the Spartans through a film session and a walk-through on Thursday, then hit the practice court against on Friday and Saturday for today’s game as the Spartans try to remain one of only two teams with undefeated conference records, along with Michigan. The Spartans and Wolverines are a half-game ahead of surging Maryland (14-2, 5-1).
“I talked with my staff, my trainers, I met with some players and everybody just thought there aren’t many opportunities to get two days (off),” Izzo said. “I talked with my doctors and not for any reason of illness but I just thought it would be beneficial for maybe the two weeks.”
When Michigan State defeated Purdue, 77-59, on Tuesday, Izzo noticed a few players having a little less fuel in their tank than usual, especially center Nick Ward.
Izzo is hoping the Spartans’ legs are recharged when the Spartans face a Nittany Lions team desperate for a chance to turn their fortunes around in conference play.
“I said after the last game, I thought a couple of our bigs didn’t respect the opponent like you need to respect the opponent,’’ Izzo said. “We’ve got to do a better job and I’ve got to do a better job of that. So what Penn State brings is an opportunity to see if we can go against a team that doesn’t have as good a record yet are well coached. They’ve taken some games (to the wire) . . . Indiana, its a two-point game. Michigan, it was an eight-point game late. They’ve played some teams well. They beat Virginia Tech, who’s now a Top 10 team. So, I’m not confused by the way that basketball is, but there’s been upsets all over it, bigger upsets than Penn State (potentially) beating Michigan State, so I’m trying to take the business-like approach and see if we can get our team to play at a level that’s consistent with playing well, no matter who we play.”
The Spartans, who rank No. 9 in the country in scoring offense at 86.4 points per game, will be facing a Penn State team that despite only averaging 58.4 per game in league play has been allowing its opponents to just 67.8 points per game.
And although the Lions have had their troubles on offense, they do have some capable scorers in 6-foot-8 junior forward Lamar Stevens, who leads the team with 18.6 points and 8.1 rebounds, and 6-foot-2 freshman guard Rasir Bolton, who’s adding 12.6 points, after hitting 32 3-point field goals so far this season (.376 accuracy).
PSU also has one other double-figure scorer in senior guard Josh Reaves, who’s contributing 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.2 assists per contest.
While Penn State has some decent firepower on offense, if they want to improve on their 8-38 all-time mark against MSU, they’re going to have to find a way to stop the Spartans’ dynamic duo of junior point guard Cassius Winston and junior forward Nick Ward.
Winston is No. 6 in the Big Ten in Scoring and No. 4 in the nation in assists per game.
Winston, now considered a national player if the year candidate, leads the team with 18 points and 7.4 assists per game, while Ward adds 16.7 points and 6.6 rebounds a contest.
LANGFORD OUT, AHRENS QUESTIONABLE
The Spartans will be without junior guard Joshua Langford, who will miss his fourth straight game with an ankle injury.
“(Team doctors) said it will be a week or so and then they’ll take the boot off and then we’ll have a better update by next Monday or Tuesday,” said Izzo, who has told media members he isn’t likely to boldly announce when Langford will return.
But Langford’s absence could become a bit more expensive if his replacement in the starting lineup, Kyle Ahrens, can’t play.
Ahrens missed the two practices prior to the Purdue game with ankle and back injuries.
“He hurt (his back) a couple of weeks ago and then I think on that dunk in the Ohio State game he wrenched it,”
Izzo said. “Then he got hit the other night (against Purdue). He has a minor back sprain. That is something that I’ll keep an eye on because that would be two people at a similar position (that are injured).”
Izzo would probably love to get through this game without having to use Ahrens. With MSU scheduled to play a difficult road game at Nebraska on Thursday, giving Ahrens a little extra time off could prove valuable for the Spartans in Lincoln. But first is this tricky assignment at PennState.
If Ahrens' role is reduced at Penn State, that means freshman forward Aaron Henry is likely to play an expanded role for a third straight game.
The versatile Henry has played 15, 19, 14 and a career-high 22 minutes in his last four games. He has become a trusted defender, and a valuable reserve as Michigan State has started to experience injury problems at players positioned ahead of him in the playing group.
Fellow freshman Gabe Brown was a DNP (did not play) in tight non-conference games against Texas and Florida, but his value is escalating due to the injury situation, and his improved play.
Brown, a 6-foot-7 wing out of Belleville High School, played 13 minutes against Northwestern, to go with six and four minutes in the last two games. Against Purdue, Brown nailed a 3-pointer from the right wing off an inside-out pass from Ward, who pass from a double-team. That 3-pointer was part of a pivotal run in the first half that helped Michigan State extend a double-digit lead by intermission.
Brown is shooting at outstanding 56 percent from 3-point range on the season (9-of-16). Izzo is watching to make sure he becomes more accountable on defense. Izzo liked Brown’s effort and focus on that side of the ball against Purdue. Brown may get more chances to prove himself in Sunday’s road game, which could prove to be more tricky than many expect.
Michigan State will lean on Winston to facilitate dominance down low with Ward, sophomore forward Xavier Tillman and senior Kenny Goins.
Tillman adds 8.7 points and 7.8 rebounds off the bench, while
Goins contributes 6.6 points and leads the team with 9.4 rebounds per game.
And let’s not forget senior guard Matt McQuaid’s 8.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
With Langford out and Ahrens questionable, McQuaid might not be able to spend of any of his minutes at back-up point guard. He’ll be needed on the wing.
That means freshman Foster Loyer is likely to get two shifts per half at point guard - or more, if the Spartans are fortunate to extend a lead and have a comfortable time in Happy Valley, something Izzo is hoping for but not necessarily expecting.