With a No.1 spot that seems up for grabs each week and upsets circling around the league, only one thing is for certain at the week five mark of college basketball season, and it’s that No.11 Michigan State basketball has already faced a season worth of obstacles.
“We’re really younger than we think,” coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re a work in progress.”
The Spartans (5-2) struggled with a shaky start in the Maui Jim Invitational tournament last week, where they started with a 71-66 upset loss to unranked Virginia Tech. An unfocused Michigan State team struggled with turnovers and continued to fail at capitalizing from the three, digging themselves to the ground in the Nov. 25 match-up.
“We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re not going to be there for a couple weeks,” Izzo said. “If we had Josh (Langford) and Joey (Hauser), we would be a lot more stable than we are now, but I do think we are making some progress.”
Senior guard Joshua Langford has sat on the Spartans' bench since injuring his foot in December 2018. Langford’s next re-evaluation is set for January 2020, however Izzo said he doesn’t expect Langford to be back, and if he were to heal it would be “frosting on the cake.”
“We’re more worried about Josh’s future than the present,” Izzo said. “I am not counting on Josh coming back, that would be frosting on the cake. That would be great if it happened but judging by the progress and the length of time it took before and where he’s at, I just want to get Josh back where he can continue to play basketball beyond this year, and that’s kind of the big worry and big concern for me right now.”
As for redshirt sophomore forward Joey Hauser, he was denied eligibility after three appeal waivers, benching him for the season and forcing the Spartans to put out an unexpectedly young roster early in the season, with freshman Julius Marble and Rocket Watts putting in more minutes than Izzo originally anticipated.
“A lot of adjustments this team is making and within that, I think we’ve done an unbelievable job, unbelievable,” Izzo said. “We have our moments when we have certain lineups in there that really we’re not ready for it yet. Never did I think we would start almost two freshmen this year.”
Above all else though, is the tragic death of guard Cassius Winston’s brother, Zachary Winston, that has shaken the hearts of the entire team.
Since the loss of Cassius Winston’s brother Zachary on Nov. 9, it’s been more than just Winston struggling to recover.
The death of Winston’s brother has affected the entire team, as Zachary spent a lot of time at Michigan State getting to know the athletes on personal levels, which is something Izzo said he thinks is overlooked.
“We’re still going through a lot," Izzo said. "We just are. That’s the way it is. We are trying to find our way and pull together.”
Aside from pulling the team's focus away from the court, the Winston family’s loss has affected the team’s interactions with each other, especially during their most recent trip to Maui.
“When you ride on a bus, when you fly on an airplane, those are magical times for a team,” Izzo said. “Those are when you build camaraderie. ... Those are what makes a group of people a team, but when you’re in those situations and you can't laugh and joke and you're cognizant of what’s going on, I couldn't explain to you how difficult that was. I’d be wasting my time.”
Izzo said this loss mixed with the traveling associated with Maui has made this Spartan team “fragile,” for the time being.
It’s nobody’s fault, Izzo explained, but it’s a factor that has impacted the Spartans early on as Winston acts a leader on the team. Izzo said he thinks Winston had one of his best practices in weeks on Dec. 1 and even said he saw a smile on Winston’s face for the first time in a while.
“I know one thing,” Izzo said. “I believe this kid has dealt with it better than I have because I’ve been kind of walking on skates.”
With bumps in the road already this season, there’s no question that the now No. 11 team is not the same Spartan group that was expected this preseason.
However, as the Spartans host Duke on Dec. 3 in the ACC/Big Ten match-up, they’ll have the chance to start their road to improvement against a team in a similar place.