After unexpectedly getting the weekend off, Michigan State men’s basketball returns to action with a rematch at home against Minnesota.
Hot off wins against Northwestern and Nebraska to start the year, the Spartans’ Jan. 12 game at Michigan was postponed after the Wolverines had players in COVID-19 protocols and could not field a team to play within the Big Ten’s parameters. Head Coach Tom Izzo said he was aware of the postponement around 10:45 p.m. the night before the game was to be played and was pleased with the communication he got from Michigan, including a personal phone call from Head Coach Juwan Howard.
Izzo said the team got Saturday off after traveling back from Ann Arbor in the morning before returning to practice on Sunday. While still happy with the communication, he added that he would have preferred more transparency from administrations regarding the root of the postponement and is unsure of when the game will be rescheduled due to the nature of their current schedule.
"I feel sorry for everybody but I'm just not sure we have enough straight, strict rules and think there should be more transparency on all of us whether we're vaccinated or not vaccinated, whatever those rules are," Izzo said.
The postponement kept Michigan State’s (13-2, 4-0) eight-game win streak unblemished, a run dating back to a loss to Baylor on Nov. 26, 2021. Izzo said he doesn’t believe the postponement took away any of the momentum gained with their undefeated stretch to close out the year and the team is “worrying about ourselves” in order to keep it going amid uncertain times.
“We didn't win another game but we didn’t lose a game either,” Izzo said of the recent postponement. “We could’ve done both.”
Senior forward Gabe Brown also attested to the team’s effort to focus on themselves going forward. He said the team was excited to play Saturday's game but took advantage of the rest provided and is working to maintain the balance between keeping momentum without getting fatigued.
“It’s a good balance but for an athlete, it’s hard,” he said.
Minnesota (10-3, 1-3) has recently stumbled after their undefeated start ended with a 75-67 loss to Michigan State on Dec. 8. After rebounding with wins over Michigan, Texas A&M CC and Green Bay, the Golden Gophers suffered two consecutive double-digit losses to Illinois and Indiana to kick off 2022 with an 0-2 record.
Izzo said he feels Michigan State has gotten much better since their first matchup but “it’s hard to say” if Minnesota has done the same in that same stretch of time due to strong matchups against Illinois and Indiana. Regardless, he still continued to praise the work of first-year Head Coach Ben Johnson for steering the Golden Gophers to an unexpectedly strong start and believes the contest will still provide some difficulty for his team.
Senior guard Payton Willis and sophomore forward Jamison Battle remain the focal point of Minnesota’s offensive attack, contributing nearly half of the Golden Gopher’s average point total at 34 points per game. Izzo praised their shooting prowess and noted Michigan State’s continued strategy to contain them as they did in their last meeting when Battle and Curry combined to shoot eight for 27 from the field.
Redshirt senior forward Eric Curry notched a season-high 18 points in Minnesota’s prior matchup against the Spartans. It was a performance that Izzo admitted had to do with Michigan State’s game plan as much as Curry himself.
“Part of it was us and part of it was them,” Izzo said. “We chose to give (Curry) more freedom so we could make sure we handled Willis and Battle ... It wasn’t at the fault of necessarily our bigs, it was how we decided to cover them.”
Since they’ve faced the Golden Gophers before, Izzo said the team has primarily been focused on working on correcting some of the team's mistakes. He listed off turnovers, offensive execution, rebounding, defending and closing games stronger as some of the main things they've worked on in lieu of hard preparation.
In their first matchup this season, Michigan State dominated much of the game and led by as much as 16 at one point in the second half only for Minnesota to whittle away much of the lead and make it a much tighter contest in the final minutes. It was a win that encapsulated much of the Spartans' struggles to put away games, a continuing trend Izzo said he’s been harping on as of late.
“What you emphasize is what you get,” he said. “So somebody should say you should emphasize a good start and a good finish and then we’ll all be happy.”
Michigan State hosts Minnesota on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. The game will be aired on Big Ten Network.
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