Tuesday, June 18, 2024

MSU men’s basketball gears up for challenge against Tennessee in charity exhibition

October 28, 2023
Junior guard Jaden Akins (3) dribbles the ball during a game against Hillsdale at the Breslin Center on Oct. 25, 2023. The Spartans defeated the Chargers 85-43.
Junior guard Jaden Akins (3) dribbles the ball during a game against Hillsdale at the Breslin Center on Oct. 25, 2023. The Spartans defeated the Chargers 85-43.

Following an 85-43 victory over Hillsdale College to open pre-season play, Michigan State’s men’s basketball team is set to battle Tennessee in its final exhibition game on Sunday at the Breslin Center. 

The Spartans, ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, will face off against the No. 9 Volunteers in a charity exhibition in place of their scheduled closed-door scrimmage. 

All proceeds will be donated to the Hawai’i Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund, providing financial support to relief efforts from the Maui wildfires. 

The two teams scrimmaged last year at Tennessee, and MSU head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo has a long-standing relationship with Tennessee Head Coach Rick Barnes. Barnes and the Volunteers are slated to take part in the Maui Invitational this November.

The Spartans are scheduled to participate in the 2024 Maui Invitational, which takes place annually in Lahaina and have played in the tournament five times, the most recent in 2019. Izzo has been around for all five appearances — four as head coach. 

“Our program at Michigan State has had the opportunity to visit the island five different times and I’ll never forget the feelings I had when we arrived and when I walked onto the floor at the Lahaina Civic Center to start my career,” Izzo said in an August statement. “It’s one of the most special events in college basketball and it’s because of the people who put it on and the city that embraces and welcomes all of us.” 

Keys to success for Michigan State 

MSU was as advertised in its opening exhibition, albeit against a Division II program, showing both its experience and young talent. The Spartans shot 55 percent from the field, tallying assists on 27 out of 33 made field goals. 

However, against a Tennessee squad superior to Hillsdale in every way, Michigan State will need to be more physical on the block and clean up its decision-making. The Spartans grabbed just four more rebounds than the Chargers Wednesday night and turned the ball over 11 times. 

“We’ll have to improve a lot on the boards, we’ll have to improve a lot on some sloppy turnovers if we’re going to beat a team like (Tennessee),” Izzo said after the Hillsdale game. 

Eleven MSU players saw the floor in the first six minutes against Hillsdale, including a full lineup change at the 16:13 mark in the first half. As the Spartans enter the meat of the seasons in the coming months, the rotation will look different than it did Wednesday night.

Injuries played a key role last season for MSU, tapering down its already-slim depth. The 2023-2024 season is another story. 

“I’m hoping that we play nine, ten guys,” Izzo said. “There's a lot of coaches that will tell you that eight's the magic number. You know, we had eight last year and it wasn't so good because we had those injuries and we were down to eight that we played so much. So I think we're in good shape where we are. There were some guys that didn't play good enough to play more minutes and it's going to take a little more time.”

Scouting Tennessee

Tennessee displays a night-and-day difference from Hillsdale on every level, especially in physicality. Under Barnes, the Volunteers’ identity revolves around wearing down the opponent with both athleticism and strength.

Fifth-year senior guard Santiago Vescovi leads the charge for the Volunteers as the team’s highest scorer in 2022-2023, but he will sit out Sunday’s game due to family reasons. 

Tennessee junior guard Zakai Zeigler is among Tennessee’s major returners. He averaged 10 points and five assists per game last season, earning him a spot on the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Watchlist. 

Tennessee added two established shooters from the transfer portal: Dalton Knecht from Northern Colorado and Jordan Gainey from the University of South Carolina Upstate. Knecht, who averaged 20 points per game a year ago, was named to the preseason watch list for the Julius Erving Award, recognizing the nation’s top small forward. 

The Volunteers went 25-11 last season, finishing tied for fourth in the SEC and earning a four-seed in March Madness. However, they were upset by Florida Atlantic during the Owls’ magical run to the Final Four. 

The Spartans are 5-2 against the Volunteers in regular-season meetings and have won three straight times. In the 2010 Elite Eight, MSU beat Tennessee 70-69 to advance to the Final Four. 

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“I think Rick’s a hell of a coach,” Izzo said. “It’s going to be fun for him and I. It was good last year, it’ll be good for Maui.”

Tip-off is slated for 3:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Breslin Center. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.

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