As the Nov. 25 college basketball start date approaches, Izzo and the rest of the mens' basketball coaching staff are trying to figure out how to make this season as normal as possible as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, and has even afflicted the team.
As practice begins, men's basketball coach Tom Izzo addresses uncertainty and players to watch
“We came back to school, we had a couple of cases, and that set us back a little bit, but for the last two weeks we've been kind of COVID free,” Izzo said during a media call on Oct. 14. "We're making some progress, we're looking forward to trying to get back to some normalcy is the best way to put it. In doing that, I think we have to understand that it's going to be our obligation to take care of ourselves the best we can. That doesn't give you 100% that everything will be right, but it gives you the best chance.”
While Izzo believes that the protocols in place by MSU and the Big Ten will keep athletes and the staff safe, it’s the social life and off-court events that could cause more problems for the Spartans and their health.
“I really believe that we're just gonna have to protect our social bubble,” Izzo said. “I feel really good about what we're doing at our facility. Nothing's perfect, they talk about touching a ball or this or that, they're all issues, they're all problems, they're all part of the unknown. The difficult part is when they (athletes) go back to their apartments. If somebody comes by and we're trying to tell them don't let them in, if you let him in, make sure you both got masks on, all those kinds of things. It gets taxing on a player.”
The NBA recently wrapped up their season, crowning the Los Angeles Lakers as their champion. In their four months of play in the Orlando bubble, they had zero COVID-19 cases paired with zero fans in the stands until families were allowed to join later in the playoffs. Instead, virtual fans and fake crowd noise filled the empty void. Izzo believes they could do a little bit of the same in the Breslin Center.
“We're going to do some things in the arena to kind of spruce it up a little bit,” Izzo said. “We'll definitely have some crowd noise and music and what we're allowed to do. I'm still hoping and praying that as this thing moves forward, that we're going to end up with some fans and media back in the stands before we're done. All we can do is learn from the NBA or the NFL, but there's no question we're going to have to manufacture some of that excitement ourselves.”
Players to watch, Foster Loyer stepping into bigger role
This summer, the coaching staff has only been able to work with a couple of the players at a time rather than the entire squad. Despite that, many players have made great strides according to Izzo. Junior point guard and newly named captain Foster Loyer is one of them.
“He's an unbelievable kid, unbelievable student, and probably fortunate for me, another guy with a very high basketball IQ,” Izzo said. “That's probably what he's gotten a chance to show this summer. First of all, he's in the best shape of his life. Second of all, he just looks stronger and more comfortable out there. Now it's up to me to give him a chance to play because he really hasn't had a lot of chances to play.”
Loyer’s role in his first two seasons at Michigan State was to fill the minutes as star point guard Cassius Winston rested on the bench. Last year, Loyer averaged under eight minutes per game, and only started once. At the end of the season, Izzo and Loyer discussed his role for next year and even options for Loyer to possibly leave the program if Loyer desired.
Now as a captain of the team and a need for Winston’s shoes to be filled, Loyer could be one of the guards called upon to fill that role.
“I think you'll see him and Rocket (Watts) playing together some, but what he can do, he can shoot it with anybody on our team,” Izzo said. He's getting shots off, he's learned how to play against quicker guys and I think going against Rocket every day or some of the bigger guards we have in Gabe (Brown) and Aaron (Henry) have helped him. I think it's evident that the players respect him, they voted him captain. Those are all big positives.”
Another experienced guard that could propel the Spartans is graduate student Joshua Langford. After missing the last season and a half, Izzo says he’s starting to look like his old self again.
“He's been pretty solid right now,” Izzo said. “I would say there's days that he looks like the old Josh, 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.”
Another player who joined Langford on the bench last season was Joey Hauser, who had to sit out because of the NCAA’s transfer rules. According to Izzo, Hauser is eager to begin his time at Michigan State, so much so that he asked for a meeting with Izzo to express his excitement.
Izzo had high praise for his newly added big man.
“As a player, he can pass, he can dribble, defend, he can do a lot of things,” Izzo said. “What you would be most surprised about is that he might be one of the best passers that I've had. Definitely as a big man best passers since who knows who, but maybe that magical guy that was here a long time ago. For his size at 6’8 or 6’9, 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 billion I thought he was, every bit of what I recruited out of high school.”
As the season approaches and practice begins, Izzo is looking forward to figuring out his lineup, mentioning players like Loyer, Langford, and Hauser that will make an impact. Some of the other players Izzo mentioned who could fill his five spots in the starting lineup are Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry, Marcus Bingham Jr. and possibly even Malik Hall.
“One thing I do think is we have depth,” Izzo said. “It seems like we always have depth a lot, but depth and quality of depth are two different things, but I do think we have some quality depth.”
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Many things will be up in the air for the upcoming basketball season as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and as Izzo tries to come up with his rotation for the season.