After getting a win on Senior Night, Michigan State is set for their first taste of the postseason with a second round matchup in the Big Ten Tournament against Maryland.
Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said Sunday’s 77-67 win over the Terps was an important victory for his players and the program as a whole after they snapped a two-game losing streak, sent their seniors off at home and picked up Izzo’s record-breaking 663rd overall win at Michigan State. Now, with the postseason in full swing, it’s the “start of a new season,” one that provides them with another opportunity to start sustaining further success.
“The things we learned this year could benefit us in this and yet, we got to play better than we played,” Izzo said. “We have not consistently played to the level I think we can play and if we do, I think we have a chance to do some damage in this tournament.”
Among the concerns for the Spartans are “reconnecting” a defense that faltered hard in a skid that saw them lose seven of nine games down the stretch while also getting the most out of their depth in a tournament with little rest and limited in-depth scouting.
“We do have one of those teams that could play 10, 11 guys,” Izzo said. “We could have (junior forward Malik Hall) do something one night and (freshman guard Max Christie) do something the next. Scouting us isn’t real easy either…I do think our depth could help us as we go.”
Meanwhile, Izzo said sophomore guard A.J. Hoggard has been at a “different level” after battling an illness that marred his last three games and saw him put up season-lows in minutes played against Michigan and Maryland. Finally healthy, Izzo said he believes Hoggard can be one of the key forces to help push his team to new heights as the stakes increase.
“If he played like he did in practice today, we’re gonna be a much better team,” he said on Tuesday.
Scouting the opponent
Thursday’s second round game of the Big Ten Tournament marks the third game between the Spartans and Maryland (15-16, 7-13) this season and the first back-to-back matchup for Michigan State this season. Izzo said the challenge presented by playing the same opponent this much isn’t “fun” when considering how well both teams know each other at this point.
“It’s like pulling teeth when you play the same team over and over and over, especially back to back,” he said. “It’s not easy to beat a team three times.”
In their first two games, the Spartans narrowly ousted Maryland 65-63 on Feb. 1 for their most recent road victory and 77-67 on Sunday in an emotionally charged Senior Night win. Michigan State held considerable leads in both games that the Terps managed to cut down, a trend Izzo said was a credit to their well-seasoned opponents.
Of their veterans, few are more important to Maryland than senior guard Eric Ayala. After a dismal first half on Sunday, Ayala exploded for 17 points (5-8 from deep) in the second and helped lead the charge in a 17-2 run that cut Maryland’s deficit to 3 points with five minutes to go. Izzo said his team will be focused on doing a better job guarding Ayala while also trying to shore up the general defensive struggles of Sunday’s closing period to limit any further comeback attempts from the Terps.
Graduate guard Daron “Fatts” Russell also put up 16 points in Maryland’s most recent tilt with the Spartans but Izzo said he thought his team did an effective job of “containing” the Terps’ dynamic point guard in the flow of the game and they’ll look to continue that success. Junior forward Donta Scott, “a thorn in our side forever,” Izzo said, was also limited to the tune of 13 points (5-14 from the field) while the Spartans more than held their own against Maryland’s bigs in the paint.
As has been the case for most of the year, Thursday’s game marks another test of Michigan State’s experience or lack thereof. With the Big Ten Tournament’s cancellation in 2020 and a single-game second round exit against Maryland with no fans in 2021, this current team is one of the most inexperienced postseason teams in recent memory, something Izzo said is a bit of a concern.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out, ‘What is this?’” he said. “It pains me to think that our juniors and seniors have gone through this and not gotten a chance to enjoy the good times. But it was the cards they were dealt and we were all dealt and there’s worse things that have happened than that.”
Regardless, Izzo said he believes his team is excited for the opportunity, if not fully understanding of the pressures presented by “one-and-done” play. As for the tournament itself, he said he’d be surprised if any of the current favorites ended up winning it due to the volatility he’s seen in conference play this year.
“If it goes like the rest of the season, hang on,” Izzo said.
Michigan State tips off against Maryland at 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.
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