After near upset, men's hoops focused on becoming mentally tough
Men's basketball head coach Tom Izzo thought his team lost focus this week, but is glad they came out with a win.
The third-ranked Spartans escaped an upset on Tuesday when they defeated Rutgers 62-52 at the Rutgers Athletic Center, marking the team’s first win on an opponent’s home floor.
It also marked MSU’s sixth game in the last 13 days and MSU’s seventh consecutive double-digit win, despite five lead changes.
Izzo said on Thursday this time of year gets especially trying for teams, noting No. 2 Kansas, No. 5 Florida and No. 7 Texas A&M all lost to unranked opponents this week. Izzo said he was proud his team could pull out the win, despite a clear lack in concentration.
“Jud Heathcote, rest his soul, always used to tell me it’s finals and Christmas time that are hardest,” Izzo said. “Who wants to take finals? None of you guys did and I didn’t. And for Christmas, who wants to be up here practicing while everybody else is home?”
Izzo, however, doesn’t want to confuse a lack of focus with a lack of effort. He was able to find positive things to take away from the win.
“Trust me when I say this: we didn’t come out and just not care,” he said. “You know, turnover right away, not running up the court, things that you see. The good part is we showed them the film, we explained to them on the airplane ride back home and yet we still played against a team that’s very physical and very tough.”
Sophomore guard Cassius Winston thinks the reason MSU did join the list of top-10 teams to be upset this week was the year of experience for him and most of his team.
“Last year, I don’t think we would have won that game,” Winston said. “We weren’t mentally tough enough, we didn’t know how to win games like that. I think last year we would have crumbled and lost that game.”
MSU finished 2-7 in road games last season, all against conference opponents, went 14-2 in games at the Breslin Center.
“Last year we would have just shot ourselves,” sophomore guard Miles Bridges said. “I would have thrown up some dumb shots or (Winston) would have turned the ball over. But we’re growing up and we’re learning how to win.”
But players urge there’s parity across the Big Ten. On Tuesday, No. 14 Minnesota fell on the road to Nebraska, an unranked team MSU beat by 29 points last Sunday, 78-68.
“Any away game is tough, especially in the Big Ten,” Bridges said. “We just have to come in focused and I don’t think we came in focused to that game, not focused enough, even though we won. Because anyone can upset anyone at any time.”
Now, MSU has some time to rest up and can celebrate the adversity it faced without a loss.
“We just had to stick together because we knew there was going to be a lot of distractions,” Bridges said. “People were going to be fatigued and if we stuck together we knew we could win most of the games, and we won all of the games.”
The Spartans will now have until Saturday to rest until they host Southern Utah at 6 p.m. After a quick pitstop to Little Caesars Arena in Detroit next Saturday to play Oakland, MSU is at the Breslin to round out non-conference play and resume the Big Ten slate until Jan. 7 to play Ohio State.
Until then, Izzo will take it one game at a time.
“It’s hard to keep guys focused on what they’ve got to do for a long period of time,” Izzo said. “And that’s a game we couldn’t lose. We couldn’t lose that game.
“If we lose it’s because we get beat, not because we lose concentration.”