In the pre-game press conference Zoom call ahead of Thursday night’s matchup against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo opened the call with a recap of where the team is in its COVID protocols and its return, albeit halting, to the court as individuals and as a team. The team had its first “official” practice in nearly two weeks on Monday, with a few of the players still on the sidelines and away from the team in COVID protocols isolation, among their number is junior forward Gabe Brown as Matt Hoeppner noted in his piece. Brown will not play against Rutgers, but it appears that graduate senior guard Joshua Langford will at least technically be available, although Izzo was skeptical as to how involved he would be given his relative lack of lead-up time and ability to play extended minutes.
Izzo was pleased with the workout, and with all of the individual workouts and small group work that the staff (primarily Izzo himself) had conducted over the last 18 or so days. Izzo commented that on Monday the team was able to get up and down as a group for the first time in 12 days, while generally over the last couple of weeks they had been forced to separate a lot of guys, divide the team between two locker rooms, and rely on good communication between all of the coaches, staff, and players, as they navigated the near-complete shut-down of the team. Izzo reiterated that the team has been testing the players every single day since October, and that they are “ready and raring to go.”
Izzo expects to have 11 to 12 guys available on Thursday, and ruminated on the incredible stress that he has felt.
“When you’re a coach, you worry about your players, coaches, and now you also turn around and worry about your opponents and their well-being as well,” Izzo said.
Izzo also spoke about how encouraged he has been by the players in his program: “(It’s been) enlightening to me to see 20 year olds who we condemn a lot of times...for the most part the way these guys have handled it has been unbelievable...I appreciate the energy they bring and.... I am comfortable in my skin on what they are doing.”
The Spartans’ coach readily accepted the notion that the pause offered him and the team a bit of a chance to re-start the season, but commented that it brings challenges as well, as other coaches have underscored for him in conversations:
“I’m on a committee with (Villanova head coach) Jay Wright and they went through it even a bit longer... in our case we still got to work out eight or nine guys....it is like you’re redoing training camp, but it isn’t like other teams are...Rutgers goes to Indiana and they play their best game of the season maybe after struggling for a while, so they’re playing better,” Izzo said.
While the Spartans, and many programs throughout the country have had to stop and re-start their seasons, some have not had to, or have had the benefit of doing so earlier in the season and have subsequently been able to build momentum or rebuild momentum.
The biggest concern that Izzo has heading into the Rutgers game, is one that Wright mentioned to him:
“Wright said his defense and rebounding was the worst it’s been all year, you usually miss the defensive intensity, we’ve been getting a lot of shooting in, but [haven’t been able to work on team defense]; and we reviewed a lot of plays and defensive schemes, and doing more film session in the practice gym where we can stay distanced,” Izzo added.
As Izzo noted, it’s not going to be “fair” on everyone, but if that is what it takes to get a season, then he is, per usual, ready for anything. When asked if he had any insight on rescheduling games, or how the latter stages of the regular season and postseason will shake out, Izzo had an interesting response:
“Absolutely zero (idea)...had a conference call yesterday, but...if there’s any cut in games, then they’re gonna try to make those up, but the truth of the matter is we have no idea...I think it’s really hard, but I think (associate athletic director Kevin Pauga) is involved with some of that,” Izzo said.
“The best thing I can tell you is I took my staff last week, and I told everyone to take a team and prep for them because they can move games this way or that way. I think we’re going to play four games in a week and probably some back-to-back games. I don’t think it’s going to be fair for everybody, and [(we can’t) worry about this and that for records. We’ve got to make adjustments for whatever; I think the conference office is going to do the best they can, but we’re going to get down in another week or two, we might play some teams back-to-back at their place to get the games in.”
While much of Izzo devoted much of his commentary and many of his responses to questions on the COVID response and general handling of the layoff, I could not help but ask a basketball-related question. Specifically, I asked Izzo this: “Tom, when we last saw the team versus Purdue, it was kind of a tale of two halves at the center position, how is the center rotation looking now? Do you have any of those guys who have stepped up or made a claim on that spot?”
Izzo first noted that Mady Sissoko has only just returned to practicing and action, “Mady is gonna go, but whether he’ll play is a question — there’s a curve of getting back in shape, catching the ball; whether he’ll play I don’t know. But we’re gonna show up, we’ll have a team, and I think the guys will be excited to play.”
Additionally, Izzo encouragingly singled out Marcus Bingham Jr. as a guy in the front-court who had really had a great couple of weeks of individual work and small group work, as well as putting in extra time: “Marcus Bingham has worked his way back in (to my good graces) and had a very good run these last two weeks, working on his own and really doing a good job.” When Joey Hauser later got on the call, he also noted that Marcus is “really talented and he has to keep working and keep trusting his teammates and coaches and he is going to be a huge part of this team and play a huge role for this team.”
Finally, regarding the back-court and wings, Izzo reflected his frustration on behalf of Gabe Brown and the staff’s failure to get him more meaningful minutes against Purdue— the last 18 days have likely seen Izzo rewatch that debacle about 10 times.
“Gabe is a shame because we did not play him enough and he is one of our best shooters and he is now in the protocols,” Izzo said. “We have had some more time with Rocket (Watts), which has been good. Aaron Henry and Foster Loyer have had two really good weeks off with Aaron shooting it better and being really awesome the last two weeks.”
As Joey Hauser joined the Zoom presser call, he looked a bit like a guy whose eyes have glazed over while staring at something for too long — maybe it was his TV screen, or the calendar, or the scouting report for Rutgers — but it was clear when he began to speak just how ready he is to resume playing. He noted that the absence of some of the guys and the layoff can have positive effects:
“It can be good for the team, guys can step up, guys can step into new roles,” Hauser said. “I always feel like I can get better by watching some, so other guys have had a chance to do that at times now.”
When asked about the impact that the rest has had on him, physically, he noted that it has pros and cons: “For the most part I’ve been healthy, I had a couple little bumps and bruises here, but I think this time off has helped everyone get back to 100 percent. Now you gotta worry about conditioning and keeping strength up.”
Asked about his focus for the team as they resume competition against a Big Ten foe, Hauser focused on turnovers as having a potential multiplier effect on uncertain early shooting returns: “Turnovers; we can’t turn it over and be sloppy with it. Shots may not fall so we’ve gotta be ready in case we don’t make shots. More guys have to be ready to play because guys may get more tired.”
Hauser and the team are clearly focused on the threat that Rutgers poses. While the Spartans convincingly handled the Scarlet Knights in their first matchup, this Rutgers team presents a new challenge, with new faces in the lineup, and renewed confidence.
“They’ve made some adjustments and played really well last game, but like any good team they’re going to make adjustments from when we played with them, so we’re going to have to respond,” Hauser said.
Malik Hall then joined the call and had some interesting responses to questions. While he is still a younger player on the team, his increasing role and prominence are maybe more evident to those observers outside of the group of players, or to Malik himself. When I asked him about his ability to remain consistent, and even his ability to impart his mental focus and consistency to his teammates he deflected attention away from himself, saying that “everyone has been doing a great job, we know they’re going to start coming really fast; make sure you’re mentally prepared.” While it is clear that he still does not view himself as a leader on the team, that role may be thrust upon him by necessity given Gabe Brown’s absence from the lineup and Josh Langford’s likely limited role against Rutgers.
Hall has been practicing all year at multiple positions, but has prepped even more for playing on the wing in the lead-up to the Spartans’ restart. When asked about prepping for that additional role, he also imparted a bit more insight related to my question:
“I’ve been working on it in practice, and something I’ve been doing all year just getting ready...it’s definitely exciting for me; I’ve always wanted to have more on my plate, and the coaches have given me that opportunity which really excites me.”
Hall is very much a guy on the team who should be given more responsibility on the court, and who will greatly benefit his teammates if he can also take on more of a leadership role and more of a vocal role as a preacher and imparting vector for the consistency that the team’s first try at a season generally lacked.