Following the tough loss to Iowa over the weekend and prior to the tour of the state of Indiana that will begin on Tuesday night in West Lafayette, Michigan State Spartans head Coach Tom Izzo met with members of the media on Monday via Zoom.
During the call, Coach Izzo talked about the point guard situation, the mode of transportation down to Purdue, his team’s current struggles, and what the NCAA Tournament streak means to him.
Point Guard Problems
A key story line in Saturday’s game versus Iowa was the disappearance of sophomore guard Rocket Watts at halftime. It was later reported that Watts felt sick during the game and had been removed from the arena, pending further testing, due to COVID-19 protocols. Thomas Kithier went through a similar process a week prior.
Similar to Kithier, Izzo reported that Watts has continued to test negative for COVID, but is still battling flu-like symptoms and has not practiced. Watts appears to be questionable to play against Purdue on Tuesday night, but has been cleared to play.
Izzo also mentioned that junior point guard Foster Loyer had hurt his left shoulder on Jan. 2 at Nebraska and then reinjured the same should against Penn State last week. Loyer has also not practiced and Izzo mentioned that he is questionable for the game at Purdue as well. That said, Izzo expressed later in the press conference that he expected both Watts and Loyer to play at least some minutes against the Boilermakers, but he doesn’t know how many.
With Watts and Loyer both questionable, Coach Izzo mentioned that using either Aaron Henry or Josh Langford at the point guard spot are potential options. He drew a comparison of how in the past, two-guards like Chris Hill were called upon the play the point when needed.
“[Using Henry or Langford at the point] is definitely in the game plan that we could use it,” Izzo said, “but I don’t think that we will start out that way.”
Izzo also expressed confidence in freshman A.J. Hoggard. Coach said, “A.J. is ready to play and he played pretty well against them [Purdue] last time.”
Warm Up The Bus
Normally, the MSU basketball team would take a charter flight to reach a place like West Lafayette, Indiana for a mid-week game. But, with the impending winter storm in the Midwest this week, the Spartans will be kicking it old school and making the roughly four-hour drive by bus.
When asked about the drive, coach Izzo quipped, “Northern Michigan, baby. It’s three or four hours less then those rides at Northern Michigan.” I suppose to a Yooper, Monday evening’s travel will seem more like a pleasant Easter Sunday drive.
As for the rematch with Purdue itself, the key will largely be containing center Trevion Williams. Coach Izzo remarked that he has “point guard passing skills. He is maybe the best center passer in the country, if you ask me.”
The fact that Michigan State has played against Williams once already this year and the fact that MSU just finished largely containing Iowa center Luka Garza provides a basis for success that MSU’s bigs can potentially build upon.
Still Tinkering in Mid-February
It is no secret that with an 4-8 Big Ten record and only eight games remaining that the Spartans are struggling on multiple fronts. Coach Izzo admitted that even though it is mid-February, he is still tinkering with lineups and looking for combinations that might work.
“What you do with a team is that you hope that in the preseason that you get guys to separate themselves, and as we know there wasn’t as much of that,” Izzo said. “We have a lot of guys who haven’t separated. I have tried to give each guy a chance and it is hard to live with things if they are making the same mistakes.”
Coach Izzo went on to say, “now we might be forced into just sticking with somebody or looking at maybe playing a little different way...players’ job is to play to a level where they separate themselves in practice or not. If that doesn’t happen then you are caught tinkering a bit more than you would like.”
One of the other obvious problems with this years team is a general drop in shooting efficiency across the board. When asked about this, Coach Izzo listed a variety of reasons including players such as Foster Loyer’s shoulder injury and Josh Langford returning after almost two years from a serious foot injury. He also mentioned how players such as Gabe Brown missed 17 days due to COVID-19.
Coach Izzo added, “some of it is confidence. Some of it is the situation. Some of it is what all of these guys are going through...You lose some games and it compounds the problems that they are dealing with every day in their life.”
When sophomore Malik Hall was asked later in the press conference about what needs to be done from a players point of view, he mentioned the need to “come into every game with a lot of effort and make sure that it is not effort plays that are causing us little mistakes.” He added, “we know that we have to play to the best of our ability, and if we do that we know that we can make the Tournament.”
About That Streak...
The elephant in the room for the past few weeks has been Michigan State’s 22-year long NCAA Tournament streak, which is now in very serious jeopardy. Coach Izzo was asked about the streak from a few different angles on Monday afternoon.
First off, Izzo does not have a clear number of wins in mind that his team needs to reach. Furthermore it is not clear what other variables might come into play that would disrupt the tournament or the selection process. Some teams might get shut down due to a COVID outbreak right before March Madness begins.
When Coach Izzo was asked point blank about what the NCAA Tournament streak meant to him, he had a lot to say.
“Records are made to be broken,” Izzo said. “Of course the streak is important to me, because it is something special. The streak of every senior going to a Final Four was special, and when that ended with one of my favorite teams (in 2014)...that was tough.”
Coach Izzo continued, “Every streak here, since the day I came here means something to me. Every win means something to me. But I don’t look at success or failure on streaks. I look at consistency over years.”
At the end of the day, there is a lot of basketball left to be played and a lot of things can change over the next three weeks. Coach Izzo reiterated that the goal is to win as many games as possible going forward, to get better, and to play better, starting at Purdue this week.
“My job with two weeks left is to keep us in the hunt,” Izzo said. “I am ready to accept that I have to fight my tail off for the last eight games.”
The fight continues on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. against Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana.