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Notes & Quotes: Tom Izzo is ready to get the Michigan State basketball season rolling

“Saying we’re excited would be an understatement,” Izzo said. “It’s been an incredible seven months for all of us. I think when you start the season it’s an excellent chance to start moving froward.”

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After what can only be described as the most bizarre offseason of his tenure, Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo is excited to begin the season. Although the regular season schedule is still unclear, practice officially begins today for the basketball program.

Izzo met with media today, via Zoom. He talked a lot about what to expect from his team, some of the individual players, the uncertainty ahead as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, and various other topics.

“Saying we’re excited would be an understatement,” Izzo said. “It’s been an incredible seven months for all of us. I think when you start the season it’s an excellent chance to start moving froward.

“Our players worked very hard — we had an incredible July and August. I thought we made a lot of progress as a team, even though it was in a different way — more in the weight room, individual work. We weren’t allowed to be together as much during the summer — pods of maybe three or four. But it worked out pretty well, I thought we got a lot out of it.”

Of course, the underlying issue this season, and trying to get through a full season, is the pandemic. There is still a lot of uncertainty on how many games can be played, what travel will be like, etc.

Izzo feels safe with the procedures and protocols that Michigan State and the Big Ten have put into place. Still, though, a lot of it is out of his control.

“It’s going to be our obligation to take care of ourselves the best as we can,” Izzo said. “And that doesn’t give you 100 percent (certainty) that everything will be right, but it gives you the best chance. So, we’ll be masking up a lot, we’ll be trying to take care of ourselves as best we can.

“I think the university and the Big Ten in general have done an incredible job of trying to deal with this and give us the best chance to be successful. I think the protocol that we have within the building is phenomenal. I feel like we’re really safe in Breslin. The problem is, I can control the athletic bubble, I can’t control the social bubble. When you see things happening around the country, more of it is because of what’s happening off the court or field than on the court or field.”

In terms of the actual players and team itself, Izzo seems bullish on the 2020-2021 team’s prospects. Of course, the team loses some key pieces from last year’s team as well, and Izzo is well aware of that.

“We’ve had some guys make some serious improvements,” Izzo said. “I like the direction we’re heading. There’s no secrets that we lost two very, very good players, and a guy in Kyle Ahrens — Cassius (Winston) of course and Xavier (Tillman) — but in Kyle Ahrens we lost the stability guy and one that I’ll miss in that respect. But we lost our two leading scorers and arguably the two smartest players we’ve had in a long time. They were very, very good on the court — of course they were very good in the classroom, too — but their on-the-court presence was special. It’s going to be a lot to replace.”

With that said, Izzo thinks there are several guys on the roster ready to step up. While losing Winston, Tillman and Ahrens is a big blow to the Spartans, the team returns several veterans, and adds a few new bodies to the lineup.

“We need guys to step up,” Izzo adds. “Of course, Rocket Watts will be one, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown. The addition of Joey Hauser, who at least has a year under his belt playing in the system as a scout team guy, I think is gonna help us a lot.

“The big question marks, of course, are point guard — we played Rocket there some. We’ve really been pleased with the progress of Foster Loyer. Took him a while to maybe understand the different speed and issues, and it’s probably taken me a while to appreciate what he gives us. Jack Hoiberg’s done a good job, and we’ve got a freshman that will play a little bit there in AJ (Hoggard). I think we’re gonna be, I’m not sure as good as we were there, but we can be different in different ways — defensively, with our break and things we can do.

With Tillman’s departure — who Izzo said was like another coach on the floor — the center position is also a bit of a question mark for the Spartans. MSU has plenty of bodies, but finding the guys to step up and take over those roles is going to be important for Izzo and his team.

“We need Marcus Bingham — he’s gaining weight, but it’s been a slow process,” Izzo said. “We’re very pleased with Julius Marble. He’s improved a lot, I think, body wise. Malik Hall has been another guy, and of course Mady Sissoko is a freshman coming in that we’re expecting some big things out of.”

Izzo also made it a point to say that the first day of practice was always legendary Michigan State coach, and Izzo’s mentor, Jud Heathcote’s favorite day. Izzo is thinking about the late Heathcote today.

More notes and quotes:

Izzo on Josh Langford’s return from injury:

“Knock on wood, he’s been pretty solid right now,” Izzo said of Langford. “I would say there’s days that he looks like the old Josh — out dunking and doing things that he really couldn’t do last year. He’s way ahead of where he was last year — I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic for his sake and ours.

“But how is it to have him back? Great! He’s been a great leader — he’s even upped that. He was always a great leader by example, now he’s starting to bring other people with him. His shooting, that’s one thing he did — he shot in a chair for four months. The guy never quit shooting, never quit working out. He watches a lot of film.

“I think the hardest thing is making sure josh doesn’t try to get everything back in a week, or a month or two months,” Izzo adds. So we’re really trying to work with our trainer and Josh and myself on how to balance everything, but there hasn’t been a lot of restrictions over the past three weeks, and that bodes well for both him and us.”

On Joey Hauser’s eagerness to get on the court:

“Well I’m not as eager as he is,” Izzo said with a laugh. “I mean I’m eager, but he’s really excited. He’s really looking forward to it. He’s been very good. I think he and Gabe (Brown) and Aaron Henry and Malik (Hall) — they’re starting to form a good bond and really appreciate each other. That’s something I told him he had to work on — he’s kind of a quiet kid and that’s not what we do here. So he’s really improved on that throughout the summer, and I think this fall, he’s just done a better job. He’s starting to worry more about the relationships he has with his teammates and also with his coaching staff — that part’s been exciting for me.

“As far as a player, boy, he can pass shoot, dribble, defend — he can do a lot of things,” Izzo adds. “What you would be most surprised about, he might be one of the best passers that I’ve had — definitely as a big man — best passer since who knows who, but maybe that magical guy that was here a long time ago. For his size six-(foot)-eight or nine, he sees the court extremely well and makes solid, great passes. We all know he can shoot the ball. So, Joey’s been every bit the billing I thought he was, every bit what I recruited out of high school, and more.”

On Foster Loyer’s progress:

“He came here as a smaller guard,” Izzo said of Loyer. “I thought figuring out the quickness and the skill level —and what he could do in high school, you don’t necessarily get to do in college right away — and (he) probably struggled the most getting the ball up against quicker guys and defending, which is pretty normal.

“Last year he hung in there and battled, and remember now he’s playing behind one of the great point guards that ever played here (in Cassius Winston). We talked at the end of the year in the spring after the pandemic started. We just talked about what his role could be here and even talked about options if he wanted to leave. Just because I love the kid — he’s an unbelievable kid, unbelievable student.

“Fortunate for me, (Loyer’s) another guy with a very high basketball IQ. That’s what he’s gotten a chance to show this summer. First of all, I think he’s in the best shape of his life. Second of all, he just looks stronger and more comfortable out there. So now it’s up to me to give him the chance to play because he really hasn’t had a lot of chance to play — and that falls on the head coach. I’ll take all that pressure because i think he’s earned his way through and I’m very comfortable. I think you’ll see him and Rocket playing together some.

“What he can do — we always think about what a kid can’t do — is shoot it with anybody on our team. He’s getting shots off, he’s learned how to play against quicker guys — going against Rocket (Watts) every day or some of the bigger guards we have in Gabe (Brown) or Aaron (Henry) has helped him. He’s in a comfort level. The players respect him, they voted him captain — those are all positives.”

On Rocket Watts’ growth and development:

“He has grown — I mean physically grown, he looks taller to me— I don’t know, I haven’t measured him, but I do think he’s a little bigger,” Izzo said. “He’s work hard on his shooting, he’s worked hard on his ball-handling. What he’s gotta continue to do now that we can be together is work on watching film, making decisions. He’s a pretty good passer — I mean nobody’s gonna be Cassius (Winston) — but he’s a very, very good defender. And he’s a shot-maker — he’s not afraid of the moment, he’s not afraid to take big shots.

“Trying to understand now at the point when you have the ball in your hands a little bit more — and he’ll play both, he’ll play some two (guard) also — part of his job is to get other people the ball. So, shot selection will be a little more of a key. I’ve enjoyed what he’s done so far in the little we’ve seen him. I think if he stays focused in and keeps working, there’s a lot of things he can give us.”